A Free Digital Biology Textbook Is Now Fully Hatched

Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson has been leading an ambitious project over the past few years to create a free high school biology textbook custom-built for the digital age. It’s called Life on Earth.

In 2012 the team released a sample chapter, and they’ve been releasing more since then. Reviewing the project early on for Download the Universe, anthropologist John Hawks had mixed feelings. He praised its beauty and the pleasure derived from toying with its fancy features, while also questioning how well students will learn from the format.

Now the whole project is complete. You can download the entire book for free here. You’ll need an iPad for the full effect, although I’m currently thumbing through it on iBooks on my laptop. In addition, they’ve put some extra materials together for teachers in iTunes U, which you can access from the book link. I’m curious to know what people think.


21 thoughts on “A Free Digital Biology Textbook Is Now Fully Hatched

  1. “I’m curious to know what people think.”

    I think I’m not going to buy a load of overpriced hardware from Apple to run it. End of. When does the Android/Windows version happen?

    [CZ: The book is designed in iBook Author, as I understand it, so I don’t think it will happen…]

  2. “The choice of format is the killer. What earth could have possessed them?”

    What possessed them is economics and the reality of the current marketshare for computers in education. I teach undergrad biology and about half of my students have Macs. My niece and nephew go to a public school where all the kids use iPads as part of the curriculum, which is becoming more common. Apple has the only platform where non-professionals can easily create interactive textbooks, so it is much cheaper and easier to create a textbook using this format. To create the in-built interactivity of iBooks, you would either have to code your own program for Android/Windows or go through one of the major publishers, which costs money. Also, these textbooks are FREE so stop whining that they didn’t make it for every platform. (And no, I don’t work for Apple!)

    The quality of the text is generally good, though sometimes the content seems misplaced. For instance, the physiology of plants is separate from plant diversity, though I think that the phylogeny of plants is better understood in concert with their physiology (since the major clades are partitioned largely by morphology). The text also falls into the same trap as most biology texts by focusing on vertebrate anatomy and physiology as if it is the “standard” and gives short shrift to other clades, though it at least mentions things like tracheal breathing in insects.

    The real problem I have is the phylogeny of the animals in the biodiversity text. Since when are ctenophores sister to the glass sponges and calcareous sponges sister to the cnidarians? In “traditional” phylogenies, ctenophores are sister to the cnidarians and in “current” (though admittedly controversial) phylogenies, they are sister to the rest of the animals. Also, other than the phylogenetic tree, the ctenophores are completely left out of the text (and they are too cool to omit, in my opinion). Other than that, the overview of animals is decent. I also like their treatment of animal body plans and HOX genes, though again, that is in a different text than the overview of animal diversity.

    So my overall verdict is that these texts would be good for a freshman/sophomore high school intro bio course. I don’t think they’re detailed enough for anything else. One of the nice things about iBooks texts is that anything that is incorrect can be easily fixed, so hopefully they’ll fix up the phylogenetics.

  3. I’m tutoring a computational neuroscience summer course. While Macs are common among the students they’re not the most common computers, and Lenovo machines are neck and neck with Apple as far as makers go. And we all use Ubuntu in a VM for the actual computational stuff. In the general market, too, we have a plurality of platforms, with Apple only one of several players. So yes, restricting something like this to a single format for a singel platform is short-sighted and a bit stupid.

  4. As a high school biology teacher, I have to say that I am absolutely thrilled about this finally being ready and released. The visuals and animations in the book are outstanding, and having them all organized in a single easy place that I can connect to the projector and throw up on screen in class to demonstrate what I am teaching is a major major boon.

    I often use my iPad to call up examples or show animations in class. If a student asks “what animal is that?” I can do a quick GIS and show them. If doesn’t understand really the how or why of protein conformation or gene expression or DNA replication I can show them animations rather than static images from the textbook. This iBook only makes all that easier for me.

    That my students who own iPads can also get it for free and so refer to it when reviewing or working on assignments is also a major bonus.

    Overall, like I said, I am thrilled. 🙂

  5. I see that this targets a US audience. Shame that it won’t be available to the 60-70% of the world that uses Android tablets and smartphones (90% in third world countries) or the 80-90% that uses Windows for traditional PCs.

  6. IMHO and after only a brief look this “book” (which is free) is worth the price of an iPad even if you never used it for anything else. It offers an experience that is quite simply not possible at this time on any other platform. Do we criticize producers of iMax movies because their format won’t play fully featured in every downtown cinema?

  7. crying shame that it’s in “i” format…then again it should be a boon for the half of the computer/tablet users in the u.s.

  8. Kara: I am not sure about the splitting of the sponges into different groups, but perhaps the phylogeny in the book is based on a new phylogeny that came out a little over a year ago. It moves the cnidaria away from the ctenophores, placing the cnidaria (and placozoans!) near the bilataria. An article about it can be found at: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/the-outgroup-for-animals-ctenophores/

    When I teach this stuff, I emphasize that there are several problematical groups of animals which get moved around, sometimes dramatically, every couple of years. I do not know if this current version will hold up.

    1. Hi Mark: As I said in my post, I’m aware of the current research putting the ctenophores sister to the rest of the animals. The issue is that the textbook doesn’t place the ctenophores as sister to the rest of the animals—it places them as sister to two sponge phyla. I haven’t seen any evidence that ctenophores and two of the sponges share a common ancestor that split from the rest of the animals. That just doesn’t make sense.

      Based on the presence/absence of certain genes (particularly those affecting embryological development such as those in the T-box family, TGF-beta, Notch-delta and Hedgehog/Hedgling), the sponges are most likely paraphyletic, though they are rarely taught that way. The textbook shows them as paraphyletic on the tree, but teaches them as monophyletic.

      But either way, the sponges should not be split with some of them as sisters to the ctenophores and some as sister to the cnidarians. If the current phylogenomic studies pan out, the cnidarians will be included with the bilaterians, the homoscleromorpha will be sister to the bilaterians, then the desmosponges, then hexactinellida and calcarea, and finally the ctenophores as outgroup to everybody else. Whew! (We know too little about the placozoans to really place them confidently anywhere at this point. No one has even figured out if they sexually reproduce yet!)

  9. No non-Apple availability is also a bummer for me, oh well who ever said educational content should be available to the broadest range possible.

  10. well if whoever is in charge of this (i hope it’s not some Apple stooges), wants the most number of students to take advantage of it i hope they release it on other more affordable platforms.

  11. If you’re going to design a free textbook, why on earth would it be in a form that requires Apple. Defeats the entire purpose.

  12. I do not understand the hate because it is designed for an apple platform. Wilson is giving it away. It seems the Android folks want Wilson to increase his expense to save them money.

  13. The problem with the format is, regardless of the one comment saying “just this makes it worth buying an iPad” the reality is, iPads are way, way, way out of the budget of many lower income kids, the ones with the most poorly supplied and funded schools who need up-to-date science texts the most.

    Yay that it’s free. Boo that it’s only free to people with the money for an Apple product. 🙁

  14. Echoing a lot of the above comments – no PC/Android version is a limitation. I hate the computer wars, its a tool get over it, but it does seem that one side feels that the rest of the world is moving to their way or should be their way. A free resource is only free if it is obtainable – otherwise, it might as well be another highly priced print version (which are, in my opinion, worth their money most often).

    One of the above comments mentioned that 50% of people use mac’s, or that we should stop ‘whining because it is free’. Well, that means that 50% of people are *not* using macs. And the whining cohort is not whining like a child who wants another cookie, we are voicing an appeal to the fact that this ‘free’ resource is not actually free to the masses. Travel a bit, and you will see that the mac-iDeology (see what i did there?!?) is a highly American-centered one.

    The authors don’t owe me anything, but lets call a spade a spade. Its free to a limited market, almost like a reward for using Apple. Similar to Facebook-only commenting systems popping up around the web. Your free to speak, as long as you sign up to a service.

    Regardless, I would be eager to read this and have it. So, PC brigade, find a fix to make iAuthor PC-able!!!

  15. I thought this was about the content and format of the book NOT about the platform it’s on. Why does everything devolve to flame wars?

    1. Lets think of it this way : it was made for high school students, but most high schools run PC’s. I’ve taught in two countries, multiple provinces/regions and this is the common reality. So, to build a tool on a platform that most cannot access seems strange. That is all.

      As I wrote, I am excited to somehow see this product. Sometimes a comment about the apple world is suitable and applicable to the situation, not always to incite war.

  16. I was so happy and suddenly realised I have no chance of even viewing this, nor do my colleagues whom I’ve sent the link- or most of the students- the school library does’nt have Macs as well.
    Greetings from Coimbra, Portugal

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