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Brown University School of Medicine recently bought into the Inkling concept. Its incoming first-year students, 108 of them, will be required to purchase an iPad and will use six Inkling titles as their textbooks for core preclinical classes.
NPG, publisher of the journal Nature, is finding ways to make scientific instructional content more accessible to students. In January 2009, NPG unveiled a free collaborative learning site called Scitable, “as a personal research space for undergrads and high school students with a deep love of science,” Savkar says. Users can access a growing library of original content as well as previously published material from Nature, mostly in genetics, cell biology, and ecology.
“Eventually it will have coverage across all of biology,” he adds. Instructors can assign readings, asking students to explore them at their leisure, plus students can log on and ask questions of scientists, communicate with students in other parts of the world, and read student-written blogs on topics like global warming and neuroscience.
The second NPG project is a $49 interactive digital Principles of Biology textbook that will debut in September 2011 at three California state university campuses. Principles of Biology sets out to combine the scientist-produced content and high-quality illustrations of a print textbook with primary literature from Nature, as well as animations, assessment tests integrated into the lessons, and interactive simulations of concepts that students can manipulate.
“When I was in college and learning [molecular biology] for the first time myself, I found the textbook approach very dry. It really did not give a sense at all of science being a living, breathing, growing, changing kind of field.”
“Wherever possible, we try to get the student actively engaged,” Savkar says. A “Build a Fly” module, for example, allows students to choose different types of genetic material for a fly and then see how the phenotype changes with their choices.
Students can access the material on a desktop, laptop, smartphone, or tablet. They can also print one color copy of the textbook for free. If teachers want to customize the content—as 25 to 35 percent of instructors have indicated to NPG—the digital textbook will automatically rearrange itself as requested.
Free updates will come continually, after review by an editorial board. “We’re looking at this as a living edition,” says Savkar.
Issues of price, always a hot topic among cash-strapped college students, are complicated. E-textbooks cost about half the price of print. Inkling’s titles generally cost 15 percent more than e-books, but students can pay as they go for the content at $2.99 per chapter. Teachers can pick and choose chapters for a course, so if they need only 15 chapters, students pay $45 instead of $180 for the full 60-chapter book.
Still, students will need to shell out the $500 or more for the tablet device. And interactive publishers who develop iPad content may save on printing and paper, but they will have higher development costs for the multimedia features, says Alison Pendergast, senior vice president and chief marketing officer at Jones and Bartlett Learning, a large U.S. college textbook publisher.
“I don’t necessarily think technology is going to drive down the cost of textbooks,” says Pendergast. “If anything, it’s going to keep them priced where they are. All of those additional components—animations, simulations, and interactivity—are expensive to develop.
“We’re continuing to try to find business models that keep the resources affordable for students but at the same time are cutting edge. It’s hard to do this stuff cheaply—and in order to do it well, there has to be investment.”
The nonprofit E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation estimates it will need $10 million to develop a 59-chapter digital biology textbook called Life on Earth. But the foundation plans on paying for it with money from private and public donors and making the textbook available to the public for free.