Science can advance quickly, rendering existing textbooks obsolete. Now new digital textbooks are emerging intended to better engage students and keep them up-to-date on the latest research. These e-books will cost (and weigh) less than the average printed tome. In January, Apple announced its iBooks 2 textbook platform for the iPad, and publishers, including McGraw-Hill, Pearson, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, have signed on to create content for it. In February, Nature Publishing Group, of which Scientific American is a part, came out with Principles of Biology, an interactive, multimedia “book” intended for university-level introductory biology classes that is accessible online using tablet computers, laptops, desktops and smartphones. Principles of Biology integrates text with videos, simulations, interactive exercises, illustrations and tests and also includes classic and current papers from Nature and related journals. Future titles in the life and physical sciences are in the works.

Marine ecologist David Johnston of Duke University and his colleagues have taken a more Wikipedia-like approach. Their app, Cachalot, is available for free on the iPad and was created with the help of volunteers: marine scientists wrote it without charge from lecture notes, a computer science class designed it, and institutions, including the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, donated images and video. The project grew out of a class of Johnston’s that focuses on large marine animals such as dolphins, turtles, seals and giant tube worms. Although writers are not paid for their contributions, their work does get peer-reviewed and published, thus making it potentially valuable when it comes time for promotion or tenure, he says.

Sharon Lynch, a science education researcher at George Washington University, says e-books such as these may eventually become mainstream but adds that research needs to be done on whether or not they are actually better than traditional textbooks. One such study is already under way at Nature Publishing Group: on some California State University campuses, students began biology on old textbooks, whereas other classes came in with Principles of Biology, so the company is doing side-by-side comparisons of how well students learned biology and how their attitudes toward science might differ, says Vikram Savkar, publishing director of Nature Education.

This article was published in print as "Textbooks Come Alive."