E.O. Wilson's Life on Earth by Gael McGill, Edward O. Wilson & Morgan Ryan. Wilson Digital, 2012. iTunes. (Chapter 1 available for free. This book can only be viewed using iBooks 2 on an iPad. iOS 5 is required.)
by John Hawks
Last week I was meeting with other biology faculty discussing how to revamp biology education. Faculty, students, education researchers, and institutions all want to see innovations, and they often have competing demands. A number of foundations are now trying to develop teaching units for introductory biology. Taking a "modular" approach, some are focusing on materials that can be used and reused in different courses. Others are trying a "one size fits all" approach by making textbooks to fit every course.
"Life on Earth" is a new textbook project by the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. The foundation's goal is to supply a full biology textbook suitable for high school biology. The book is one of the first to take full advantage of Apple's new iBooks format, with embedded video, three-dimensional models, self-quizzes and other add-ons integrated seamlessly in the text. The foundation intends to make the book available for free on the iBooks platform, and a sample chapter along with additional material is presently available for download to the iPad.
Some would argue that educational "innovation" is too often just window-dressing -- shopworn ideas in new, flashy clothing. Personally I tend to agree. It may be great to be able to bring knowledge to students for free, in the open. Saving school districts money may not be an unalloyed good, but it ain't evil. Still, openness isn't enough. The materials also have to be effective. When I opened "Life on Earth", I was skeptical...
...right up to the point where I started playing with the 3-D image of a nucleosome, a complex of proteins and DNA that enables tight packing of DNA within chromosomes. Freely rotating the entire structure enabled me to see the relatively small size of the protein element of the nucleosome, and the way that the DNA double helix doubles around a protein core in two tight coils. Playing with this model immediately provides a spatial understanding of the structure that no textbook before ever gave me.
There's some magic here. A 2-minute animation shows the process of chromosome separation during cell division. An image from a light microscope slowly undulates beneath the video as we see a cell ready to divide. Then the animation kicks in. A chromosome on the video image is highlighted, as if emerging from a mist. As we zoom onto this chromosome, we begin to notice the spindle fibers pulling from both sides. The video slowly focuses in on the spindle, as we notice the intricate protein machinery knitting away to extend it. The reader cannot escape the overall impression of enormous complexity deep within the cell, as processes that take minutes in a cell require a dance of millions of molecular interactions.
This format has the potential to broaden biology education. Many students today fail to understand subjects written in dry, textbooky prose. Some of them are visual thinkers. For them, a well-executed animation or photo may make all the difference. Some students learn by listening and seeing. For them, "Life on Earth" provides several 2-3 minute video interviews. Listening to an expert describe a phenomenon for two minutes adds up to roughly 250 words of text, and comes with the emphasis and personality of the person on the screen.
So it's a shame that the available videos aren't better.
One video shows an overhead airborne tour of some part of Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Gorongosa is an example that runs throughout the chapter entitled "Introduction to Ecology", which introduces the major biomes and the concepts of landscapes and ecological succession. The movie shows ecologist Marc Stalmans flying us around, talking about the importance of water in the ecology of the park, and the sources of water. Good enough, except that's where it abruptly stops. Another 2-minute video shows Ed Wilson himself at Walden Pond. That could be inspiring stuff! Wilson describes Thoreau and his cabin, and then starts talking about ecology. It wasn't a bad use of 2 minutes, but I couldn't help wondering, how does this play with 16-year-olds?
That's the true challenge of the new e-book environment. Bringing video into a book demands that we think about how to maximize the value for the student's time. Hey, I'm a biologist. Ed Wilson is awesome! I have to follow Ed Wilson at a conference next month! But I'm skeptical that a Ken Burns-type discussion will connect with high school biology students. The Wild Kingdom-like overhead shot of African biomes will leave many of them cold, and doesn't add much to the text. The videos are professional-looking, and Important-Sounding. But I'm left wondering exactly why they're there.
Hey, the book is free. I would recommend that everyone should download and play with it, except for one thing: When I tried to download it onto my iPad 2, iBooks told me I was out of room. This book is big, its mere 51 pages filling nearly a gigabyte. Let me tell you: My six-year old is interested in science, but he's a whole lot more interested in Angry Birds. Deleting one to get the other wasn't going to fly.
Happily, my iPad 1 has a lot more memory, and accommodated the book just fine after I went into the office to use a higher speed download connection. The book's videos and animations ran without any interruptions on the system, although they took a few seconds to load into memory and start in each case. The e-book wasn't seamless, but it was acceptable compared to other iPad apps. I experienced a few crashes, mainly when switching to video or animations.
"Life on Earth" is a work in progress. "Introduction to Ecology" is the only complete chapter, and it only spans 21 pages of text, plus a two-page review section and two-page "project" description. The pages themselves are very short compared to a paper textbook. The review is a five-paragraph summary with two multiple-choice quiz questions. The chapter looks pretty, but it's shallow. The text incorporates video hosted by professional biologists, animations, flip-galleries, and self-quizzes, all in support of its educational objective. Wrapped together, that's a chapter. The text should be the glue that holds everything else together. And this text is clunky. In the first pages of the chapter, the text presents the definition of a biome. Then, the natural question:
How many biomes are found on Earth? The answer is a matter of interpretation and depends to some degree on who you ask.
That fits in a tweet, but it's not what you want to run across when you're studying for the exam.
The text immediately turns to a discussion of "lumpers" and "splitters" in ecology, an important conceptual distinction for students to understand. But honestly, it seems like the writers were afraid to give students a straight answer. The chapter immediately goes on to present a series of four major kinds of terrestrial biomes (forest, grassland, tundra and desert), the first two of which are divided into three different types. A map shows the major four. If there are four terrestrial biomes, why doesn't the text just say so? If the answer is between six and twenty, depending on whether you're a lumper or a splitter, shouldn't the text just say that?
I'm not picking on that one example. My general reaction to the text was, it should be better. A text that has the promise to transform biology education for high school students should have more inspiration, and more clarity. I can click on highlighted terms for glossary and dictionary definitions. Why not every word? Should a chapter giving a 21-page introduction to ecology really include eutrophication but not food webs?
I keep thinking, "But it's beautiful!" As I was playing with the book, my kids started watching me. They were excited by the "gallery" features, which present one picture along with the text but allow the reader to swipe across a series of three or four alternate pictures. "Forest" switches through the seasons in different regions of the world; "Freshwater" allows the reader to go from Crater Lake, Oregon to Plitvice, Croatia. It's fun, and the photos are gorgeous, as if one could flip through a National Geographic photo album.
Can we have a one-size-fits-all biology curriculum at the high school level, or should the curriculum be modularized, with parts that can swap in and out depending on local advantages? Guiding American high school students through ecology in an African national park is a wonderful concept -- but for many, a walk through their local woods might be even better. Ideally, biology instruction would make use of both the local and the global perspective. For that, it would be helpful to have a book that helped make the ties explicit.
Maybe, as it develops, "Life on Earth" will become that book. But it has a long way to go.
Paleoanthropologist John Hawks is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of a blog about human evolution.