Sunday, November 20, 2011

A "post Gutenberg" e-text for biology 101

In earlier posts, I talked about an electronic text Nature would publish this fall. I suggested that it was a noteworthy departure from the established textbook format and business model -- perhaps the first "post Gutenberg" text.

The etext is out now and being used on some campuses. I've had a chance to play around with it, and remain impressed. Here is what I've seen.

The professor creates a "classroom" like the one shown here. The classroom is personalized with her name and photo and an announcement welcoming the students to the class.

Click to enlarge

The classroom also contains the material she selected to include in the course. The material is organized into units, each of which contains several modules. In this example, she included four modules in the Introduction unit. She could also have included other material like summaries of and links to primary literature, and supporting topics like lab skills or hypothesis formation and data analysis.

Clicking on "textbook" takes us to the etext itself. I put quotes around textbook, because this is not a PDF-like reproduction of a typical textbook. It is not even a "book." It is a collection of 196 modules.

Each module begins with an introduction, listing the topics covered and the skills or learning objectives it teaches and concludes with a summary, which refers back to the topics and skills. Modules also have associated multiple choice quizzes. That is pretty standard textbook fare, but the teaching "pages" covering the material are not.

I've put the word page in quotes because these are not what we think of as pages. For a start, they vary in length and are significantly longer than typical book pages. Lets look at a sample page.

The page I picked is 17 screens long on my laptop. In addition to text, it contains 13 figures, a table and six test your knowledge questions. (The page I picked did not include any animations or videos, but others do).

As shown here, the figures are like those found in Scientific American Magazine -- high quality images with relatively long captions so they can stand on their own. (Nature and Scientific American are both MacMillan Publising companies).


The page I selected contained six open-ended knowledge test questions. After reading the question, the student submits then a suggested answer is displayed. This example shows a question, my answer and the suggested answer. These are not graded or reported to the professor -- they are food for thought.


The pages also include links to supplementary material like essays on the importance of this particular topic and primary references in a narrow, right hand column. The essays on the importance of a topic are written by practicing scientists and are comparable in format and quality to the text pages. The primary references include both summaries and links to the journal articles, and there are roughly 100 all together.

Modules also include multiple choice quizzes. The first time a student takes a quiz, the results are reported to the professor, but they can re-take the quiz as often as they wish. The professor has tools to analyze the quiz data, for example comparing the scores of a particular student to the class as a whole and, most interestingly, to other classes around the world which use this text. My guess is that we will see more analytic tools in the future -- perhaps one day giving very specific feedback to students.

As you see at the top of the screenshot, the classroom also contains links to a threaded discussion, grade book, and teaching resources, which include PowerPoint slides for all of the figures, a list of all the primary sources, and 2,000 test questions.

We have been talking about the professor's view of the classroom. The student view is somewhat different. They have access to flash cards and cheat sheets for each module. They can take notes while they study, and aggregate those annotations into a single study guide for the module. They can also hide or display their notes while reading.

The professor can see a student's annotations, but, at this time, there is no ability for students to share them among themselves. Students expect social networking these days, so my guess is that Nature will probably build support for study groups and sharing notes in future etexts.

The modular structure and content of this etext is different than a traditional etext and so is Nature's business model. Traditional textbooks are written by one or a small group of authors who write the entire book and receive royalties. By contrast, Nature has contracted with teachers and scientists to write specific modules and supplementary essays for a fee.

The payment model is also different. Traditional textbook publishers bring out new every two or three years to create demand for new books instead of used or rented books. Alternatively, they offer access to an electronic version for a limited time.

Nature has a different model. The student pays $49, which includes lifetime access to the material. Nature is committed to making continuous updates as the science and pedagogy change. The student gets a subscription, not a book. The $49 price is less than that of a typical print or electronic textbook, but every student in a class must subscribe. It seems to me that this would be attractive to the general public as well as enrolled students.

I don't know Nature's costs and revenues, but, since fewer than half of the students taking a class today purchase a new book, this subscription model might be more profitable than selling books. If this model catches on, it will hurt the used book, college book store and book rental (hard copy or electronic) businesses.

The reader does not have to download and install a program to use the book. The book is published in HTML and CSS, so it can be used with any modern Web browser. The server automatically detects the size and resolution of a user's display and delivers appropriate content. That allows students to use laptops, desktops, tablets, etc., but imposes extra cost on Nature -- they have to prepare around twenty different versions of each piece of art.

Gutenberg would not recognize today's books. About fifty years after Gutenberg, Aldus made signficant changes in typography, book size and production and the publishing business model. But Aldus would not recognize today's books either. Things like paragraphs, punctuation characters, chapters, indices, and tables of contents would seem to be radical innovations.

Nature has gone beyond the traditional ebook with this text, but, as with Aldus, I think this is just the first step.