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Scitable takes online instruction to a new level

Scitable is launching of their "Essential of Genetics" content. The site is reaching out to more basic secondary and post-secondary classrooms and, perhaps even more importantly, they are reaching out to adults, since most of us lack a solid understanding of genetics at the cellular level.
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor on

This last May, I wrote a post about Scitable, a new web-based product from the Nature Publishing Group. Since then, Scitable has become a real go-to site for in-depth information about genetics with a variety of content appropriate for upper level secondary and post-secondary classrooms.

I had the chance to speak again with the Publishing Director of Nature Education, Vikram Savkar, about their new introductory level offerings, as well as their improved virtual classroom environments. Now with the launch of their "Essential of Genetics" content, Scitable is reaching out to more basic secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Perhaps even more importantly, they are reaching out to adults, since most of us lack a solid understanding of genetics at the cellular level.

The Essentials of Genetics, as Mr. Savkar noted, takes you "from 0-60," assuming no background in genetics and allowing users to genuinely feel comfortable with important and complex concepts in the field. While not nearly as detailed and deep as most of the Scitable content, the Essentials focuses on comprehension. Check out just this introductory page on DNA for a glimpse of the really outstanding animations, images, and clear text that make this unit incredibly accessible.

The videos in particular have been produced over the last 5 months with input from scientists, professional animators, and educators, and it shows. Their goal, with the videos and other content in this area of Scitable is for "anyone to be able to walk away understanding how life operates" in terms of genetics.

Along these lines, Scitable will also be launching a video program called Simply Science. These will be short, 3-minute videos in which cutting edge scientists explain their research in lay terms appropriate for a variety of classrooms, as well as adults without a formal science background. They will be adding podcasting as well to reach a growing audience.

By next September, Nature Education expects Scitable to include other major content areas outside of genetics, both with the incredible depth and detail of the original Scitable genetics content and an Essentials course for each content area.

As an educator, though, I have to admit that I was most excited about the new features in the virtual classroom. While over 200 college and high school classrooms were already being run using Scitable this spring, the updated features make this component of Scitable very hard to pass up. While many schools already use Blackboard or some other educational content management system, Scitable makes it almost brutally easy to get a course up and running with their content, yours, or some combination thereof.

Discussions, group messaging, and assignment features are intuitive and clean, both for faculty and students. My favorite feature, actually, was the science news feed that runs on classroom pages. It's customizable, but offers immediate, full-text access to Scientific American articles, ScienceBlogs, and other Nature properties. Third on the RSS feed in a classroom I created this evening was an article detailing early trials of the H1N1 vaccine, immunity in older populations, relationships to previous mass vaccinations and pandemics, and the potential for single-dose immunity. This is solid science research, handed to students in such a way that those first few Google hits aren't even a temptation.

Though still somewhat limited in content (Scitable is almost exclusively focused on genetics, albeit in a way that begs for both broad and deep understanding, depending upon your approach), Scitable is an amazing free resource for teachers, students, and adult learners alike. If nothing more, it's worth assigning a research project or two based on Scitable content for your biology class. However, it would also lend itself to a semester's worth of study and collaboration quite easily.

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