Free, all-digital textbook may be a revolution in more ways than one

A few weeks ago, I read an article in Wired talking about an amazing new project led by E.O. Wilson: an all-digital, not-for-profit textbook called Life on Earth. It looks amazing, and it's going to be offered to K-12 schools for free.

Neil Patterson, director of Life on Earth with 50 years of science textbook publishing experience to his name, said the format could revolutionize science education for students.

"Motion and film are powerful ways of teaching," Patterson said. "We're trying to exploit the human brain, like videogames do, and it's not a small matter to use technology now available to us."

I doubt many would argue that technology has the potential to provide powerful tools for learning (and based on this article and the promotional video, it looks like they are capitalizing on those tools), but I think there's another revolution lurking in this story, and it's not mentioned in the Wired article.

When I took biology in high school, and when I tutored high school kids while I was in college, THE textbook was "Biology" by Campbell et. al. It's a great book, and I have a certain nostalgia for it, since it's the book that started my love affair with biology. But it (and all other intro textbooks I've encountered) has what I consider a glaring flaw. Take a look at the chapters:

1) 10 Themes in the Study of Life
2) The Chemical Context of Life
3) Water and the Fitness of the Environment
4) Carbon and the Molecular Diversity of Life
5) The Structure and Function of Macromolecules
6) An Introduction to Metabolism
22) Descent with Modification: A Darwinian View of Life

I was a nerd in highschool, so I could get excited talking about molecules and metabolism, but my experience with teaching demonstrated that most kids lack the context to make it interesting. If you start talking about lipids and Krebs cycles (and OMG the chemistry of water?!?) before you talk about organisms and their interactions, the vast majority of students get turned off. Biologists (and scientists in general) are often reductionist, so it makes sense that building from the ground up seems like a good pedagogical strategy, but it just doesn't work that well with 15 year olds.

How did humanity learn about biology? First we had naturalists, then we had Darwin, then we had Mendel describe the laws of inheritance. It wasn't until a hundred years later that we started getting an understanding of the molecular underpinnings of life. So why do we tell kids about DNA before they even understand the concept of a gene? And why do we expect them to grasp the importance of genes if you don't understand inheritance and natural selection?

One reason is the Texas Board of Education. This article is from last year, but the point is still the same:

The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation.

The proposed curriculum change would prompt teachers to raise doubts that all life on Earth is descended from common ancestry. Texas is such a huge textbook market that many publishers write to the state's standards, then market those books nationwide.

If Texans want to challenge evolution in general, imagine how they would react to a book that placed it front and center. Which brings me back to E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth, it's right there at the beginning:

Chapter 1: Evolution and the Nature of Life. In my view, it's unfortunate that the rest of the sequence seems modeled after Campbell, but at least they've put evolution in front where it belongs. The technological revolution, though important for its own sake, could also manage to take decisions about science education away from anti-science politicians and put it in the hands of science educators where it belongs. Even in Texas, it'll be hard to argue against free.

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I'm adjunct teaching my first general biology course this semester, and when I suggested this to my supervisors, they were very skeptical. But I'd rather spend the first few weeks grabbing their attention with the big picture. So now when I talk about respiration and photosynthesis, I can tie it into the carbon cycle, and trophic levels, and they will actually know what I'm talking about.
It just seems so much more logical to start broad and concrete and drill down to the tiny, specific, and abstract.

Glad to hear I'm not the only one :-). Let me know how it works out for you - one of my pipe dreams is to make an introductory biology curriculum that more or less goes in historical order. I'd be interested to know your experience with it.

I think this digital textbook would provide major learning benefits for all students who would get to use them. Iâm currently a sophomore in high school taking chemistry. However, I remember last year in biology how much I struggled. I found the content confusing and difficult. It was very hard for me to understand many of the things we learned. For me, I think it was because I couldnât visualize what was happening. This digital textbook would have helped me tremendously. Not only would it give me the visuals I need but also the background of certain topics to make them easier to relate to. Not only would it be a great learning tool, but itâd also substitute for a heavy book. Itâd make transportation a lot easier because the biology books are big and heavy.

This article really made me dwell on how technology has impacted our lives so much. As technology advances, all aspects of society change. What made me realize this it is when the article explained how there will be a digital biology textbook offered to schools for free. I think about all the textbooks I must lug around from home to school and vice versa every day, textbooks that make me fall asleep trying to read. Some textbooks I own barely have images or diagrams, and learning is difficult when you lack interest. I love the idea of having this online textbook that includes âmotion and filmâ, as the article mentioned. The comparison to videogames already would make me more motivated to learn from this online textbook, because I enjoy videogames and learning in a similar format would be cool. The extra visuals would be useful. Also, I liked when you talked about how technology allows any science educator to share their ideas, opinions, and lessons in an easier and public way. As you said, it could stop anti-science politicians from dominating science education. Technology has really impacted the way we learn, especially because there are more resources that are easily accessed.

I agree, I'd rather be taught from a broader view than from the tiny abstract ideas. I recently took Biology last year and it was pretty confusing. People like me need to know the significance of something before they truly become interested, so starting from a larger scope then getting smaller makes sense. It also makes it easier to connect different ideas together. They want to know the explanations first so that they can build on it.
On the point of digital textbooks I usually don't like them. Whenever I read a massive wall of text it just gets overwhelming and boring. Most online textbooks that Iâve seen so far are just written textbooks translated into the internet, which is pretty annoying. Itâs also pretty hard to keep track of what page different things are on. This one though is actually pretty interesting and I think that I wouldnât mind using one of them. The bigger emphasis on visuals and videos is a real smart choice, and the paragraphs seemed spaced out enough that my eyes wouldnât get scared. If more textbooks went this route then Iâll be glad if thereâs a switch to the digital format, plus I wouldnât have to worry about not bringing my textbook with me to school

I have taught general biology in a community college for the past 13 years. I interject evolution throughout the course and then near the end I introduce natural selection. I have done it this way for several reasons:(1)My textbook does it this way (though Campbell does introduce the basics of natural selection in chapter 1) and (2) I tried teaching evolution at the start of one semester years ago and caused a riot (did I mention I teach in Alabama). I realized that students need a little background so they can acclimatize to (an understanding of the unity of life, mutations, sex, and inheritance) the concept of evolution.
However, I am rethinking my approach. Last week at the National Association of Biology Teachers conference, Richard Dawkins asked this same question. I think he is right. We should teach natural selection first thing. When I teach geology in a physical science course I start with plate tectonics. On second thought, maybe a riot in the first week of class is a good thing!

By Shane Evans (not verified) on 11 Nov 2010 #permalink

Shane - I can only imagine what it's like teaching evolution in the south. Kudos to you for making it work. I'm curious - do you think you could introduce the concepts of evolution if you didn't call it evolution, or would the students see through that?

Hi there! I'm trying to find information on the use of digital texbooks in Europe. All the experiences I have found so far are in the US and in Asia. Can anybody help me, please?