Science textbooks are born as clunky, out-of-date tomes the moment they roll off the printing press. Research simply moves too fast for the publishing industry to keep up. Digital texts could end this cycle.
Textbooks designed to be all-digital and interactive from the start (as opposed to simply converting print books) could bring not only salvation to schools because they’re easily updated, but also a revolution in how students learn science. Yet publishers are
comfortable with a $5 billion-per-year college textbook industry that
has recently seen price increases outpace inflation by more than 250
percent, and 99 percent of the market is tied to paper.
One not-for-profit organization is done waiting for the digital textbook revolution.
‘We’re trying to exploit the human brain, like videogames do.’
Within two and a half years, the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, named after the naturalist and founder, hopes to complete a 59-chapter digital textbook about biology called Life on Earth. As each chapter is finished, the foundation plans to put it into the hands of anyone who wants it. For free.
We have video of the first chapter, “Cell Division,” with interactive animations that will be integral to the text (see above). It will be available for download within a few weeks.
“I had taught elementary biology for 42 years, and I didn’t need a lot of explanation to see immediately what a big difference this could make,” Wilson said of the book in a promotional video (see below). “This is, in my opinion, an authentically revolutionary advance in
science and technology education.”
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.”
By no “small matter,” Patterson means money. Completing the book’s chapters, laced with high-end interactive animations and video interviews with Nobel laureates, could cost as much as $10 million.
“No publisher is doing what we’re doing, which is developing, from scratch, a serious digital textbook,” Patterson said. He added that only $1 million of that funding — half of it from Life Technologies Foundation — is in place, and the remaining $9 million remains to be
seen from private and public donors. “It’s expensive, but once you’re
done you can keep it up to date across time, globally, essentially free
The foundation plans to sell university-level editions for about 10 percent of the cost of the average print textbook, in part to fund that continuous updating. Kindergarten through 12th grade editions will be free.
Patterson said the idea is to provide any student in the world unprecedented learning tools, but acknowledged imminent backlash from profit-seeking publishers.
“If we give away our stuff and they’re trying to sell it, that’s a serious threat,” Patterson said. “That will be disconcerting to them, but eventually these publishers will be trying to produce what we’re producing.”
Looming threats to the print industry aside, the effort isn’t without its digital critics.
Matt MacInnis, founder and CEO of digital publishing startup Inkling, said textbooks “have not yet evolved to meet the needs of today’s student.” But he suspects Life on Earth — which may come packaged with a homework server, community forums, a student data hub and other systems — will have to compete with school districts’ existing multimillion-dollar investments in similar products.
“I think it’s wonderful to see innovation like this, and it’s noble to make great content available to schools free of charge, but I hope they’re thinking beyond the book,” MacInnis said. “By that I mean why would I, as a school, want to mess around with so many systems just for
Morgan Ryan, Life on Earth project director and a textbook developer of 20 years, didn’t discount such problems, but thinks content is king.
“If you can create something vital for classrooms, something that they need, it will find its way into those classrooms,” Ryan said, noting that schools will be free to use whatever portions of the book they see fit. “We’re aiming for the highest quality of content and the
lowest threshold of access possible here.”
Regardless of the digital content teachers choose, affordable reading devices remain the biggest hurdle to student access.
“We’ve gone from the $999 laptop to $499 iPad in no time at all,” MacInnis said. “I’m optimistic that in three to five years, device costs will no longer be a barrier.”