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.