by Emmanuel Quartey
Cinematic opening sequence of “E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth”.
Apple made waves last month with its entry into the digital textbooks market. The commentary around the announcement was impassioned, but for this post, I’m not going to revisit the arguments for/against the iTextbook. Rather, I’m just going to speak to my experience of reading the free preview of E.O. Wilson’s Life on Earth. These are my first impressions.
Life of Earth is my first experience of a textbook made specifically to be consumed electronically, and I can’t help but be impressed. Most other digital books I’ve read seemed little more than scanned versions of the paper text. Life on Earth proves that when you approach a textbook with a digital platform in mind from day one, it opens up a whole range of possibilities.
How often have you simply glossed over an unfamiliar word in a textbook because you couldn’t be bothered to look it up in the dictionary or glossary? It’s a small thing, but the ability to quickly tap on any word to get a definition is an example of little things adding up to have a huge impact on someone’s education.
Quickly looking up the word “herbivore” in the in-app dictionary. You can also search the web or Wikipedia for further information straight from the textbook.
Looking at the glossary definition of the word “photosynthesis”.
Additionally, the ability to quickly search the entire textbook for a word or phrase is very convenient. Of course, nothing about the dictionary or search function is revolutionary, but they become so much more useful when applied to a textbook context.
Life on Earth exploits the multimedia capabilities of the iPad to introduce you to the people who’re doing groundbreaking work in the field of life science. For example, the textbook features a short video by Sir Paul Nurse, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
Tapping on Sir Nurse’s portrait starts the video.
It’s one thing reading the words of a pioneer in a field, and quite another to see that man and woman actually speaking to you about a topic they love. It’s a powerful, personal appeal to learn.
Thinking beyond the specific example of Life on Earth, this functionality makes it possible to bring the best instructors from all over the world to the learner, a particularly exciting prospect when you consider the growing interest in open-source textbooks.
Each chapter of the iTextbook comes with a glossary of key terms. Additionally, all the notes you make are compiled in a useful Notes section for easy reference. Finally, you can make custom flashcards (called “Study Cards”) based on the book’s material and your notes. Anyone who has spent hours copying out flashcards by hand can tell you what a huge deal this is.
And of course, there is all the interactive wizardry that I expect from my “textbook of the future.” Apple states that “Although we believe in the power of visual storytelling, we are careful to keep special-effects glamour in its place. Our animations are crafted to achieve high quality instruction, not box office.” If Life on Earth is indicative of their general approach, I have to say that the claim is believable.
The 3D rendering of a nucleosome is faschinating, and it adds rather than detracts from the learning experience. Time-lapse and click-and-learn modules are similarly instructive.
Learning insect anatomy: Tapping on different parts of the insect’s body shows what it looks like on different types of insects.
Using your finger to slide up and down the timeline shows you how global temperature has changed over time.
Overall, my test run of Life on Earth left me envious of the learners who’re going to benefit from this technology.
I still worry that there’s a long way to go before the people who most need this will actually have access to it, but if this is a glimpse of the future, I’m very excited indeed.
You can try Life on Earth for yourself (free preview).
Want to connect with Wires Crossed? Follow us @wires_crossed or email us at email@example.com.
More posts by Emmanuel.