E-book review: "Life on Earth", the future of textbooks?

“Download the Universe” is a new collaboration of 16 leading science communicators and scientists who are dedicated to understanding and furthering the art of science e-books and apps. The scene for science writing has fundamentally changed during the last year. Interactive books, self-published e-books, short “Kindle Singles”, and new outlets for long-form science journalism have given us many new ways to bring science to a broader public. Traditional review outlets have fallen behind. The best sellers on Amazon often haven’t seen any kind of mainstream review. That’s why we’re stepping up to highlight this growing mode of science communication.

In my first review for “Download the Universe”, I’ve taken a close look at the first of a new breed of biology textbooks: “‘Life on Earth’: the future of textbooks?”

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...

My view of the book is mixed – some elements are truly magical. The animations and video present the opportunity to engage learners who aren’t well-served by text-only materials. But it’s still a work in progress, and it’s not clear how to integrate these different elements in the most effective way. The text itself is the core of any book, and it needs to be stronger.