Switching to an online-only biology textbook

Now that summer session is behind me, I’m looking forward to starting to work on my Intro Cell Biology class for the fall. This year I’ve adopted a new textbook that is completely online, Principles of Biology. It is published by Nature Education as part of their Principles of Science series of textbooks. I’ve taught the class three times now, each time using the massive Raven Biology textbook. So why switch?

The short answer is, so that my students will read the text. With the encyclopedic Raven text, I found that the material for any given class topic was spread across a large swath of the book, with plenty of distraction that I had to ask the students to skip or ignore temporarily. With the Principles book, it is broken down into modules, each of which seems to be much more digestible at a single sitting. My hope is to be able to assign a module per class session, sometimes two, and expect that the students will arrive having read it already. That way, we can spend our time together discussing the topic in small groups and attempting to apply it to a real-life problem or question in biology rather than plowing through the material and introducing everything.

I do have some hesitations though, the first of which is that students really like to have a physical textbook. No matter how much they complain about cost and weight, they feel secure just holding their book. With an online-only text, I worry they will feel like they still need to buy a “real” book. I plan to discourage them from this as much as possible, but they may still buy it. Which brings me to my second concern, that our other introductory course is still using the Raven text. For the past 3 years, students who’ve taken both intro courses have been able to use the same text for both. Given that it costs nearly $US200, that was at least some consolation. I was unable to convince any of my colleagues who teach the other course to adopt the Nature Principles text yet, although many expressed interest in it for the future.

Why this text, though, and not just the eText version of Raven? I’ve addressed that at length in previous posts, but suffice to say I’m not a big fan of most of the eText versions I’ve seen, with the exception of the Inkling version. The others are poor quality, difficult to read, and have a strict time limit (they expire). I’ve provided links to the etext versions the past two years, but none of the students have opted for it. With the Principles book, the students are buying lifelong access to a quality text (and other ancillary tools) from a highly reputable source, and the cost is far cheaper than the others. It just seems like a better deal all around. I’ll be writing here about the process of customization as I build my course, so check back as the summer wears on.

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