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Dispatches from the Digital Revolution

Interactive e-textbooks: setting the bar too high?

Nature Publishing Group recently (okay, I’m a bit late to the ball game—it was in February) announced the release of a new digital-born textbook that has left me both nervous and excited for the future of textbook publishing.

It’s called Principles of Biology, and although it’s called a textbook, it’s actually much more. According to the TechCrunch announcement:

The instructor can modify the organization of the modules, or select to omit some modules altogether from the version used in their class. Diagrams and figures can come to life through animation. Examples can leverage drag-and-drop tools to interactively reinforce key concepts. And each student’s copy is personalized—for the life of the book—with assessments. The instructor can review each student’s assessments and get good insight into where a student might benefit from additional instruction.

On top of all that, the text is only $50.

Fifty dollars?! That’s chump change for intro texts. And I guarantee that the fact it’s a biology textbook has a lot to do with being able to set the price point that low.

Which brings me to a bit of a dilemma. On one hand, it’s awesome to see how the Web is allowing textbooks to become complex teaching tools. In college, my accounting professor used a very simple version of Wiley’s online learning system, WileyPLUS, to assign homework problems—and although accounting homework makes you tear your hair out no matter where you do it, I have to admit that the ability to check my answers and work out my errors in the comfort of my dorm was a huge asset. (Pun intended.)

So in that respect, I’m excited for textbooks like this to become the norm. They can do awesome things. Students who take advantage of their enhancements will benefit, no doubt.

But I’m also really nervous that this will become the norm. Because maybe a biology textbook can sell enough licenses to sustain a low $50 price tag, but—yes, I’m back on my soap box—what about areas that can’t? What about niche upper-level courses in, say, the humanities? Will students be able to step back to a regular paper textbook with minimal pedagogical resources? Will they be willing to shell out $60 or $70 for a static reference tool? Will these online wonders make it necessary for all books to have some kind of online reference? And how will that change the commissioning, costing, and publishing processes of academic publishers?

Not only that, but what effect  could it have on professors—many of whom are required to publish—whose works can’t sustain or don’t adapt well to online enhancement? Will more universities turn to free, open-source textbooks?

About Leah Thompson

Writing and publishing professional in the Boston area.

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This entry was posted on May 7, 2012 by in Opinion, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged , , .

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