Education is increasingly becoming digital, using social networks, videos and collaborative online tools to enhance the learning experience. One of the largest online social education communities is Scitable. A hybrid between a virtual classroom, a social network and a scientific journal repository, Scitable boasts several hundreds of thousand users around the world. We recently got to speak with Vikram Savkar, SVP and Publishing Director at Nature Publishing, about what Scitable is, what it offers to students, and the future of social education.
Can you give us a brief background of Scitable? Where did the idea for a collaborative science community come from?
Scitable is a spin-off of Nature Publishing Group, one of the world’s leading publishers of scientific research journals. Scitable is a collaborative online learning space for science, aimed at formal learners at the undergraduate, graduate, and high school levels and informal learners of all ages and from all walks of life.
To a large extent, the idea for a collaborative science education community came right out of the way science itself works. Science isn’t an isolated discipline — it’s inherently social. All scientists pick up data and conclusions from peers and extend them with new insight of their own; and most scientists directly collaborate with peers when developing their theories or designing experiments. We realized that a powerful solution for training scientists has to foster some degree of this collaboration. Otherwise it’s only educating students about the facts, not the process, of science.
Our readers would love to know about the social features of Scitable. What are some of the ways people interact in your network?
The core principle behind Scitable’s social network is collaboration – i.e., working together to learn complex ideas. When users fill out their profile, we ask them to talk about their professional goals, learning goals, publications, and so on. This allows us connect users based on overlapping scientific interests. There are two kinds of interactions that result. One is peer-to-peer interactions – students finding other students, in many cases half a world away, who are studying the same subject. They can share notes and insights, direct each other to useful links, and discuss thorny questions. The second is mentor-to-student interactions – students connecting directly with the senior scientists whom we’ve recruited from our journals to make themselves available in the site, oftentimes leading researchers in the field. Students ask about scientific ideas they are finding difficult to grasp, or sometimes about how to plan their career; the researchers in almost all cases are very happy to spend some time sharing their knowledge with the next generation.
What sets Scitable apart from other online social networks?
First, Scitable is a tightly focused network, designed from the ground up to help young science students gain a deep understanding and appreciation for research. So the data we gather from users about themselves is targeted to science, in a way that isn’t possible for more general networks. And the senior people we recruit to join the network are by design accomplished scientists, so the signal-to-noise ratio, so to speak, when a student is reaching out for mentorship or advice is quite high. Second, since we’re a publisher, we’ve created a very rich library of premium scientific content that is only available through our network. That content is not only a kind of watering hole that draws people to the network, where they can then have unexpected and productive collaborations with each other, but is also a fuel for those collaborations – people share and discuss particular articles, videos, and so on.
Is there anything else you think our readers would like to know about Scitable?
The content library is growing – we’re expanding across the other life and physical sciences over the next couple of years, so in the not too distant future it will be a comprehensive space for anyone who loves science. And the network is growing geographically – from an original base in the U.S. and U.K., we now have active members from nearly every country in the world. That’s tremendously exciting – you can reach out to a scientist from Madagascar or Mongolia, and who knows what will result. There’s also another, fairly robust, tools side to Scitable that we haven’t discussed – classroom tools that allow faculty to organize several students into a private collaboration, personal learning tools, that guide individual learners through topics that most intrigue them, and more. So explore!