Scitable - Social Network Changes Face of Scientific Learning

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Scitable - Social Network Changes Face of Scientific Learning

Scitable is an offshoot of Nature Publishing Group, which is the publisher of Nature, Scientific American and about 70 other magazines. I interviewed Vikram Savkar, Scitable's SVP of publishing to learn more about Scitable and how this online social network is changing the face of learning in the scientific community.

Vikram, "We're one of the leading publishers in science research in the world. What we've never done until recently is publish something for the scientific education community. We always published research for researchers, but we came to feel that there was a real possibility that there aren't going to be enough researchers in the next generation to do the important scientific work that needs to be done."

He added, "40% of students that start their college years in the U.S. drop out by their second year. That's an enormous loss and it suggests that there is an alienation between this young generation and the way science is being taught. So we decided to jump into the game and invest a lot of our thought and time in creating a new approach to teaching science - and the fruit of that is Scitable."

Vikram went on to explain exactly what Scitable is. "Scitable is an online learning space for science and what that means is that it has a library of very high quality content that we have created." He continued, "It's not crowd-sourced Wiki(pedia) content. It's content that editorially we've commissioned and reviewed and vetted in all the life sciences."
"Around that we have tools that allow this content to be used meaningfully in classrooms by teachers and students. The tools include virtual classrooms that allow faculty to run all or part of their classroom directly out of the site, having discussions, keeping track of progress, assigning custom textbooks, and so on. It includes a collaborative community which is the most exciting part, in which we draw together scientists, researchers, teachers, and students of all ages into a global classroom from the 165 countries in which our site is used."

He gave an example of how Scitable expands the community where you can learn from other people. Vikram said, "Right now I'm sitting in Cambridge, Mass and I've surrounded by about 80 colleges in Boston; most of which teach biology. But none of the students from any of the other colleges studying biology have an opportunity to study or learn from the other students at the other 79 colleges just within a few square miles. This is an enormous lost opportunity for collaboration. People learn from people more than words or things and this generation more than any other generation really prefers to learn from people. So our goal is to connect all the people who are in a position to teach and learn science together in one place and help them find each other."

Vikram explained how you can search to find actual notable researchers in the field of study you are interested in and ask them direct questions, and chat with them if they are online. If they are offline you can email them within the system.

Sometimes students post obvious homework questions or something from a take-home exam. Vikram said they screen and filter these type of questions and they let the student know they are not a homework service. The purpose is to help students understand something they are having difficulty understanding. The average turnaround is 24 hours with a maximum of 48 hours. If on the second day there hasn't been an answer, Scitable with step in and route the question to someone they know can answer it.

They use a combination of MarkLogic and Lucene for the back-end search engine. Results displayed include both articles and images.

I asked about monetization and Vikram responded, "We are monetizing but not from our users. We want to make sure cost is not a barrier. So one of our goals is to democratize science information." He added that they want to bring high-quality science education to the  developing world where there are often no textbooks.

He continued, "So making this information available for free and easily discoverable so that students everywhere can have access to a level playing field of information is our goal. So we plan to stay free." He explained they monetize through corporate underwriting with life-science companies like Novartis and Roche sponsoring science education.

The entire Scitable site is now mobile-enhanced. iPhones, Blackberries, Androids, Nokia and every other mobile phone with a browser are now be able to access the Scitable content with a mobile optimized version of the site. For iPhones they strip Flash and replace it with HTML5. For Nokia phones or other phones with simple browsers they strip a lot of the things that make the pages heavy so that there is a reasonable page load time.

Currently there are over 10,000 colleges / universities in over 165 countries using Scitable.

Play my interview podcast with Vikram below to learn more about this exciting online science education "social network".

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