Monday, May 28, 2012

Going Digital < _Nature_

Roberta Kwok / Nature 485 , 405-407(2012) / doi:10.1038/nj7398-405a / Published online 16 May 2012

Creating electronic textbooks requires ingenuity, teamwork and multimedia savvy.

Douglas Emlen is hard at work on an evolution textbook. But this is not just a print book. Creating an iPad app with images, audio and video clips, and interactive graphics and exercises has meant collaborating with designers, programmers and an artist on a digital version of the book.

Emlen, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Montana in Missoula — who is co-writing the book with Carl Zimmer, a science writer based in Guilford, Connecticut — is part of an emerging group of scientists navigating the world of digital textbooks. The idea of electronic instructional materials is not new: texts in e-book form, as well as online supplements, teaching tools and homework systems have been available for years. But as tablets and e-books become more popular, publishers are increasingly placing equal or greater importance on the digital product rather than considering it as an add-on to the printed book. [snip]. The increasing popularity means that authors must consider the digital vision of the book when coming up with an idea and work with diverse teams to weave together text, multimedia and interactive exercises and quizzes.

“The role of an author in the past was, 'Let me write a big manuscript and mail it in to you',” says Kurt Strand, senior vice-president and chief product officer at McGraw-Hill Higher Education in Dubuque, Iowa. Now, the author provides the vision for the complete learning experience, he says.


The first electronic textbooks were little more than replicas of the print versions. But, with the release of the iPad, greater Internet bandwidth in schools and a growing popularity with students, textbooks with more interactive features are emerging. [snip].

The shift from print to digital textbooks is happening very quickly, says Morgan Ryan, project director of E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth, a digital-only biology textbook being developed by the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. [snip].


A digital vision


Proposals to publishers should include ideas for multimedia and interactivity. Although publishers generally don't expect authors to provide app prototypes or refined illustrations, they do want specific concepts that can be executed by the publishing team. [snip].

Some authors are planning graphics and interactive elements up front, instead of writing the text first and deciding which multimedia to add later. “The digital product becomes much more of a teaching tool than a way of illustrating in some visual form what the words are saying,” says Eric Schulz, ... .

But authors also need to be aware that multimedia and interactive elements are expensive to produce. The amount of money available will depend, in part, on the size of the potential market: an introductory economics textbook, for example, will probably have a larger budget than a niche upper-level textbook about community ecology. [snip].

Reconceiving the textbook

Cost and time considerations are not the only reasons to use multimedia judiciously. “Students aren't going to learn more just because you throw a whole bunch of videos in there,” says Emlen. Instead, authors should carefully consider which method would be most appropriate for achieving their instructional goal. For example, David Johnston, a marine biologist at Duke University Marine Laboratory in Beaufort, North Carolina, and project leader of Cachalot, a self-published digital textbook about marine megafauna (see 'Self-publishing'), says that it makes sense to use a picture to show the features of a penguin's tongue and an audio clip to demonstrate the noises in echolocation, but to illustrate the rate of sea-ice decline, a two-dimensional graph could suffice. [snip].

Opinions differ on how large a role the text should have compared with graphics, animations and interactive features. “I often see too heavy a reliance on expository text,” says Matt MacInnis, founder and chief executive of Inkling, noting that Inkling's data suggest that learners skim, search and refer to text instead of reading it. “Find ways to be brief and multimodal rather than expository and textual.” For example, the next iteration of WileyPLUS, Wiley's online teaching and learning system, will 'chunk' material into concept modules and avoid long passages of unbroken text. [snip].

The structure of textbooks is also in flux. Digital textbooks are becoming increasingly modular, as many publishers are selling individual chapters and allowing teachers to build customized versions. Some textbook producers are also migrating towards more open-ended navigation in which students can skip to topics rather than follow the linear ordering used in print. [snip].

Once a publisher has accepted the concept, the author needs to guide the publishing team that will execute the idea. Authors have to be at the centre of the creative process, says Roberts ... [snip] ...  must clearly communicate their vision and be prepared to iterate it as elements such as artwork and simulations are developed. [snip].

Aspiring authors should use existing science apps and digital textbooks. [snip]. For example, about 40 authors and reviewers worked on the digital Principles of Biology textbook from Nature Education, a division of Nature Publishing Group, which publishes Nature. And authors should consider teaming up with a multimedia-savvy partner, ... .

In the end, authors should not get distracted from the core task of trying and validating better teaching methods. [snip]”

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