Home » Apps, Ebooks » Digital Textbooks Go Straight From Scientists to Students

Digital Textbooks Go Straight From Scientists to Students

28 January 2012

From Wired Science:

A year ago, electronic textbook publishers turned down David Johnston’s big idea: the first interactive marine science textbook.

Johnston, who runs a marine biology lab at Duke University, wanted the digital tome to show undergraduate students what his scientific field has to offer. But e-book publishers said the subject matter was too niche and the requested features too expensive to make financial sense.

“When we approached them, they essentially told us we were too small,” Johnston said. Frustrated by the experience, Johnston set out to create open source software to publish the book himself.

“We are not going after the biology 101 iPad textbook. We are not trying to build the digital textbook for chemistry,” Johnston said. “We’ve created a simple tool for specialized subjects where there isn’t a textbook, and knowledge advances quickly. Being an open source effort gives academics the flexibility they need.”

The first interactive marine science textbook for the iPad is called Cachalot (French for “sperm whale”). It’s a free, app-based book that covers the latest science of marine megafauna like whales, dolphins and seals with expert-contributed text, images and open-access studies. Through a digital publication system called FLOW, the book also offers students note-taking tools, Twitter integration, Wolfram|Alpha search and even National Geographic “critter cam” videos.

. . . .

“Digital publishing is orders of magnitude more complicated than print publishing. It’s really freakin’ hard to build this kind of content well,” said Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of digital publishing startup Inkling.

Developing interactive features, dynamic text, and smooth displays of high-quality photography, video and audio all adds up, he said, to “an incredible fixed cost on the order of millions of dollars.” Making textbooks on Inkling doesn’t necessarily cost clients that much — rates vary according to the customer’s size — but it’s still a fairly intensive undertaking.

Duke University’s open-source effort represents a departure from Inkling and other commercial ventures. It sacrifices a wide offering of interactive features, monolithic downloads and wow-factor in exchange for simplicity, speed and flexibility. As new scientific knowledge enters a field, a leading academic could make a quick edit in FLOW to instantly and seamlessly update a student’s textbook.

As important as high-quality content is, Johnston sees the software’s open-source aspect as a crucial component of its future.

“You need only look at the power and success of WordPress to understand how far open-source can take you,” said Tom McMurray, president and CEO of Marine Ventures Foundation, a conservation organization that plans to support FLOW’s continued development.

Link to the rest at Wired Science and thanks to Erin for the tip.

Apps, Ebooks

One Comments to “Digital Textbooks Go Straight From Scientists to Students”

  1. I’ve seen this topic pop up more than once recently.

    I think that, with the current ereaders, it could work for the lower levels or for the humanities. For the hard sciences, though, even the underclassmen will be flipping through a few different bookmarks as they look from the question to the in-chapter text to the identities and equations collected somewhere else.

    In the humanities or social sciences, clicking on a word could bring up a definition or brief bio of a person, but I (personally) would be very much against a student being able to click on a question and be told “You’ll need these equations.”

    Now, what would this be good for in the hard sciences?

    Those disciplines/topics that are so small and focused that it’s not economical to have a full textbook printed up (one of my classes had this) or for the professor’s notes so that the students can print them off before class (we currently do this with pdfs; it is so much nicer to be able to follow along and make necessary notes than to frantically scramble to write down everything that goes on the board).

    I also see a possible niche for popular science/knowledge booklets. Historians could write an account of a specific battle, publish it as an ebook. Magazines like Popular Mechanics could get some scientists/engineers to put out kind of “Layman’s Guide to” books.

    I don’t know how popular they would be, but it would be feasible.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.