Thursday, June 02, 2011

More on Nature's forthcoming digital texts

A few days ago, I posted a positive note about a series of electronic texts announced by Nature Publishing. It sounded like a significant improvement over the electronic textbooks being offered by other major publishers, so, I followed up with an email interview of Vikram Savkar, Publishing Director for Nature Education. The questions and answers follow, and the added emphasis is mine, not his -- all good stuff.

When will it be possible to play around with the etext or at least a sample interactive lesson or other material?

We expect to be able to demo sample modules for press in early to mid August, ahead of publication of the full product for the broader market on September 1 2011. Review access will be available to instructors from September 1, 2011.
Is the etext a collection of interactive lessons or are the interactive lessons a supplement to an integrated textbook?
The interactive lessons in fact are the textbook. Each lesson is a thorough exploration of the topic at hand, beginning with background information, followed by a discussion of core concepts, mid-point self-tests, interactive activities to allow the student to apply core concepts, and end of lesson test questions. There are approximately 200 such lessons arranged in the sequence in which introductory biology courses are usually taught. Instructors will be able to rearrange the lessons if they teach topics in a somewhat different order. The lessons are interactive in two senses. First, because they are online - and integrated with the gradebook, annotation tools, self-tests, end of lessons test questions, and so on - students will actively drive their own progress through the material, with continual feedback to let them know where they stand. Second, most lessons contain rich interactive demonstrations (available in both Flash and HTML5 versions) that immerse students even more deeply in particularly key concepts. Taken as a whole, the interactive textbook combines what is best from print textbooks (thorough text, peer reviewed figures) with the best of what is only possible online. Note that the textbook will come with a rich set of supplements, including lecture notes, instructor guides, and more.
How often will it be revised?
One of our core goals in designing Principles of Biology was to enable it to evolve frequently, in response to both emerging scientific discoveries and suggestions that instructors have on how to expand particular modules. We plan to make these revisions on an ongoing basis. Instructors will be able to choose on a case by case basis whether or not they import these revisions during the semester, so no instructors will ever be surprised by an automatic update to the text. We think of this approach as creating a "living edition".
Will it be for sale to the general public as well as students?
Yes (and I agree with you, I think there are many lifelong learners who could benefit from this book) Principles of Biology will be available for individual purchase from the Nature Education website from September 1, 2011. The general public can pay $49 by credit card and will receive the same lifetime access that students do, with the same continual revision to maintain scientific currency.
To what extent, if any, will uses be able to cache material for offline study?
Students will have access to an offline digital version, which has most of the instructional content but won't be tied into the gradebook and a few other connection-dependent features. It's not a substitute for the full interactive textbook, but it should allow students to do some good studying on a plane or wherever else they happen to have time but no internet access.
What about DRM?
There is some DRM, but the heart of the anti-piracy strategy we've chosen for this program is ensuring that the official product is so effective that there is a significant disincentive to use a pirated version. For example, the assessments that we've integrated into every page of the textbook will feed into the online gradebook that instructors use to evaluate students' progress. Students who don't purchase the digital product won't be in the gradebook . . . that will be inconvenient for them. I'm sure some people will try to bend the rules. Overall, by pricing this product affordably, adding in plenty of value online, and mixing in a little bit of DRM, I believe we've created a strong case for people to use this product as intended.
Have you any art or sample videos that we can look at or link to?
Not just yet . . . the website is still in development and testing. We'll have samples available to you in August. We do have a few mock-ups of an iPad view of Principles of Biology if you would like to use them in the BYTE.com piece. These are early design concepts at this stage. You can see an example here.
Will there be a computer science "book" in the series? Will there be versions for non-majors, for example, "IT literacy" as opposed to computer science?
Since the natural sciences are our core strength as a publisher, our primary focus is to expand the program across most of the life and physical sciences in next few years. I would say that expansion into fields like computer science would likely only be through partnerships with publishers who specialize in those spaces.
If they deliver what they seem to be promising, and live up to the policies I've highlighted above, these will be terrific books. Since they are limiting themselves to life and physical science, I hope other publishers are watching.

(Here is another interview of Savkar -- check it out).