Scitable: Can this free website shake up the textbook industry?

scitableIn a word -- Yes. Thanks to a combination of factors, Scitable, both the science website and the platform itself, has the potential to change the way students learn and, more importantly to students; how much they have to pay for access to up-to-date, credible, high-quality information.

What is Scitable? Scitable is a new venture by the Nature Publishing Group that has been collecting and publishing scientific information for 140 years. It is an online resource curated by scientists, former textbook writers and industry experts whose goal is to provide a free resource that is both credible and makes science, genetics specifically, easy to understand.

"The best of the old; credibility and the best of the new; online access," is how Vikram Savkar, Publishing Director of Nature Education at the Nature Publishing Group, described Scitable to WalletPop in a phone interview. The online science resource currently focuses on genetics and pulls in information from Nature's publishing arm along with media rich material to make it easy for individuals or students to learn about science at their own pace.

This combination of quality credible content -- including videos and animations -- with online access and tools has led to the adoption of Scitable by more than 500 faculty members in the last year who are using it as a reading companion or in place of a textbook. According to Savkar, science textbooks are, on average, 5-7 years out of date, which is one of the reasons that professors are quick to adopt the Scitable platform.

But, that's not all. Professors can create a virtual classroom inside Scitable, which can be used for discussion and expanded learning. Additionally, when students or professors are using Scitable, they can ask experts in the field a question right from the topic page and then correspond with them via Instant Messaging or email.

Another reason why I feel that Scitable is a glimpse of things to come in how students learn is because of its open nature, which means it will likely work on any device with a web connection, like the iPad.

"Of course it's early days, and I can't make any definitive evaluation about our iPad-readiness.", said Savkar, "But, if were to guess, I would say we're well set to take advantage of the unique opportunities this device will offer both consumers and publishers. One of the nice aspects of the iPad is that it is built around the open ePub format, which is the most widely used e-publishing format in the world. Since our material is all natively in XML, I would think – preliminarily – that it could slide into the iPad with minimal adjustment. Minus the animations, I would think that students can take advantage of the bulk of our library (on an iPad). That is one of the intrinsic advantages of publishing in an open, structured, Web-based medium . . . we're inherently portable."

Right now Scitable is only covering genetics, but the platform might eventually be available to other subjects like business, information technology and education, to bring the same kind of connected learning experience to more classrooms. As a professor, I can only hope that a similar tool appears to address the rapidly changing areas of business and technology.

There have been many new platforms and free textbooks that have been hailed as changing the industry, which have failed to make a long-term change in the industry. But along with the many features already mentioned that make me believe in the potential of Scitable is that it hasn't forgotten who chooses course material and books. By providing high quality tools and resources to professors, they stand a real chance at invading the ivory towers of academia.
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