Thoughts on "Life on Earth"

You definitely want to read this if you can.

You definitely want to read this if you can.

“Life on Earth” is a digital biology textbook published by the E. O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. Though really, I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to call it a textbook. The document is a richly produced media environment, one that ranges from text, to zoomable images, to interactive animations, and video clips. I have gone through all seven sections, and I have no doubt that it will make anyone who interacts with it all the more intrigued and amazed by the biological world. To my experience thus far, it represents the best possible vision of what educational texts can look like in the modern age. In short, the work is a joy, one that is freely available to anyone who can get it.

So go get it if you can.

And here we arrive at the problem with ”Life on Earth”: You can only get it if you own an Apple product. ”Life on Earth” is a native product of the iBooks platform, and can only be displayed on a device running iBooks.

This makes me sad.

Let me be clear that my emotional response to this fact of Life on Earth is totally removed from the Foundation’s right to develop and publish their work in whatever capacity they choose. The Foundation made a choice to publish in iBooks, one that is not different from any developer who ever decided to develop for any specific platform in the history of software development. I just think it’s an unfortunate one for students. No iPad? No Macintosh? No Life on Earth.

I dislike that, for no other reason than the fact that this decision makes the best digital biology text that I have ever interacted with only available to a privileged stripe of the Biology learning world that happens to own an iPad, or a Mac. This does not seem fair to my way of thinking. It’s also a very interesting definition of “free.” I’m not sure it’s appropriate to categorize a resource that requires a technology investment of several hundred dollars per individual (at a minimum), as one that is provided without cost.

For my circumstances, if I were to use the work in class, I’d need my district to provide me with an Apple TV, so that I could stream relevant sections through a digital projector. This is a much more limiting application than what I could do if the work were available in a more universal context (as, say, a website). So, my students (and countless others), miss out on a great learning tool because of the way that tool was made available.

This is, of course, what always happens when the accessibility of a resource is not considered as being important. There is nothing in Life on Earth that wouldn’t work as a website, particularly given the feature set of HTML5, and the other suite of modern web development tools. Going this route would also have created a work that was accessible to anyone with a modern web browser, regardless of platform that browser was running on. Sadly, for all of the amazing work that was done in creating Life on Earth, this consideration of how to best make the work available to the most students, worldwide, does not seem to have been a primary one. That’s a shame.

So, what can I say about Life on Earth? Equity of access issues aside, it is a marvel. I’ve yet to see anyone who has accessed it not have moments where their jaw literally drops. I applaud the team on creating a wonderful product. But in the modern technological landscape, access issues can’t be given secondary consideration, and unfortunately, Life on Earth suffers from them all the more precisely because the work is so powerful. Simply put: If a text is the best example of what a digital textbook can be, but only a tiny, technologically privileged minority of users can interact with it, where does that leave the majority who can’t? To my way of thinking, it leaves them out.

Note: I don’t think anything I’ve written above is disrespectful to the team of developers, teachers, and scientists who created and reviewed Life on Earth, but I want to make it explicitly clear that I don’t fault any of them for the amazing work that they did. I know a handful of them personally, and I they are all interested in producing great things. A book can both be great and problematic at the same time.

Other note: I’ve expressed my concerns to the E.O. Wilson Foundation, and they were very respectful and understanding of my position. But I don’t think they really “get it”. Case in point: The work contains a variety of activities that I think would be useful as stand-alone items. The Foundation agrees…they are making them available as part of their iTunes U course, as proprietary files that work with Apple’s Pages and other iWork products <facepalm data-preserve-html-node="true">

Robin Williams

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