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Would You Like A $49 Electronic College Textbook With Lifetime Updates?

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Nature, the folks who brought you the free life sciences learning community Scitable, are today announcing “Principles of Biology”, a college level electronic textbook. Building upon the cross-platform success of Scitable, the new textbook offers a variety of fully interactive features, including quizzes and assessments, an online gradebook for instructors, and more. Perhaps most notable in this era of nickel-and-dime upgrades and in-app purchases is that this text will be continually updated with top-notch content from Nature’s editing team at no additional cost to anyone who has purchased a copy. “Our interactive textbooks, since they are “born digital”, are designed to capitalize to the maximum degree on the progressive possibilities which digital media opens up for the education space: new distribution models, new learning models, new pricing models. Our textbooks are designed to make students active rather than passive learners throughout the learning process,” says Vikram Savkar, SVP & Publishing Director at Nature Publishing Group.

Many of my college texts costs substantially more than $50 used, and they were used for only a couple of classes. Since I graduated college, I haven’t cracked a single one of the (few) textbooks I kept. I brought this point up to Savkar, and his response was illuminating.

Isn’t that because you can’t easily search a textbook? It’s quite time consuming to dig through your old boxes, dust off a book from ten years ago, and flip through a few hundred pages to find the tidbit you were looking for (only to discover that it’s now out of date). What if searching your old textbooks were as easy as typing a term into Google? And if you had the confidence that someone behind the scenes was keeping them up to date and rigorously high quality? I think you’d find that you would refer to many of your textbooks over time. You’d hear a news story about genomics, for example, but no longer remember exactly what it is, do a quick search on your Nature platform, and within a half an hour be back up to speed.

Savkar went on to highlight medical students, graduate students, and similar people who need to refer back to their textbooks on an on-going basis for several years. “I believe we’re moving into an age when textbooks can be lifelong tools, rather than short-lived supplies for one college class,” Savkar said.

$50 for a lifetime of up-to-date vetted content is a bargain, if you ask me, and I think many students (and their parents) will recognize the value to purchasing such a text. But the reality is that anything of perceived value will be made available for free online, somehow. Nature seems to have taken this into account, and has worked to reward the people who purchase the book.

There is some DRM, but the most important part of the anti-piracy strategy we’ve chosen for this program is ensuring that the real product, in its home context, is so effective that there is a significant disincentive to break the rules. For example, we integrate assessments into every page of the textbook, and those assessments feed directly into the online gradebook that instructors will use to keep tabs on their students’ progress. Without purchasing full access to the digital product, students won’t be able to feed into the gradebook, which should dramatically undermine their ability to get a passing grade. Similarly, we make it very easy for instructors to customize the interactive textbook while they are adopting it, which means that any pirated version floating around won’t help students to be aligned with their own class. Perhaps some people will take the time to find ways to get around the rules. But at the same time the relative ease of use of this product will be, I believe, very appealing to a generation that’s grown up online, and will be a strong selling point of the program.

The “Principles of Biology” textbook isn’t an e-book of the sort you’d buy for your Kindle or Nook. Nor is it an app you’ll download for your Android or iPad. It’s a web page you’ll read in your browser, but every effort has been made to make it clear that this is much more than “just” a web page. Nature has “deliberately chosen a browser-based approach because we believe it’s a powerful solution to the full range of students’ needs.”

In the first place, because it’s browser-based it will natively be accessible on essentially any internet-enabled device; no one will ever have to wait for us to roll out an app for whatever new device they have just purchased. (We do have to ensure that our mobile website adjusts itself to each device’s form factor, but that is still more efficient than creating a new app for each device.) In the second place, a browser-based book is more accessible to screen readers and other devices that disabled students rely on. Third, for the basic purchase price we will give students lifetime access to the material . . . and our editorial team will keep the content current as the state of science evolves, so that even after 5 years the former student, when returning to the textbook, will find that it’s completely up to date. Lifetime access is difficult to picture for many kinds of app-based books, because of how rapidly the underlying technologies and devices will evolve; whereas a browser-based solution has a good likelihood, in our opinion, of being accessible decades from now. Fourth, because all of the content and data for the book is stored in the cloud, access is not locked to a particular machine, or even to any set of machines. Students can use the interactive textbook from any machine they happen to be at, so long as they remember their user name and password, with no new set-up.

I asked Savkar whether the interactive online textbook was planned concurrently with their Scitable site, and he confirmed that it was. Scitable offers a variety of peer-to-peer and social functionality that isn’t really pertinent to a traditional textbook. The social features were removed from “Principles of Biology”, and features for an instructor-led environment were added, like assessments and an online gradebook. More than that, though, great attention was paid to ensure that the interactive features of the text worked as well as possible on all platforms that could support them. This means HTML5, rather than Flash, for superb iOS support.

We spent quite a lot of time in 2010 enhancing the Scitable platform, as you point out, so that all content displays usably on all mobile devices, from tablets through smartphones and down to simple flip-phones. Principles of Biology inherits all of this flexibility, and therefore will be consumable from a broad range of devices from the first day. One new area of focus for the platform for the roll-out of Principles was adding robust support for HTML5 interactives, ensuring that even the most complex interactive simulation is completely accessible from the iPad. There are many more such interactives pound for pound in Principles than in Scitable, so this was an essential enhancement for this launch, and Scitable in turn will inherit it.

The online gradebook piqued my interest, specifically because many universities today have significant investment in course management software (things like Blackboard and Desire2Learn). How would this new text integrate with existing digital gradebooks, if at all?

We do plan to enable integration with most major course management and learning management platforms by the end of the year. Faculty will be able to get the benefit of our content (lessons, supplements, and assessments) while working within their familiar campus tools. But our gradebook is a pretty rich and useful toolkit for faculty who want to continually tailor their teaching approach to the strengths and weaknesses of their students. I believe that a healthy portion of our adopters will choose to use the textbook from nature.com.

“Principles of Biology” will be available September 1 for $49, and Nature already has a three-year deal for it to be the text for classes at Cal State University LA, Chico, and Northridge. I’m very eager to see where this precedent leads, and what advancements come for college (and high school!) textbooks in the years to come.