An idea for an untextbook for intro biology

Having reviewed significant parts of both standard textbooks and the recent on-line texts by Nature and OpenStax, I’m convinced that we need a radical departure. I call it the “untextbook”. I even have a title: An Evolutionary Framework for Biology.

This title contains double meanings. It’s “evolutionary” because the sequence of topics would start with evolution and discuss all subsequent topics from an evolutionary perspective:

1) historical development of scientific inquiry

2) definition and origin of life

3) earth history and evolutionary processes

4) molecules and membranes

5) cells and energy – from prokaryotes to eukaryotes

6) cellular reproduction, genetics and gene expression

7) evolution & diversification of major groups of organisms

8) interaction of cells & organisms with their environment

9) ecosystems, biomes, global change

It’s also “evolutionary” in the sense that, as a truly open source material, it will continually evolve through contributions from both instructors and students, and many forked versions will be modified and adapted to serve local needs.

It will be a “framework”, first in the sense that all intro textbooks are a framework that broadly surveys the various subdisciplines in the field. It’s also a “framework” in that the actual text will be skeletal; much of the content will consist of links to videos, animations, interactives, news articles, and blogs, with a sparse narrative to weave and introduce the topics. If someone has written and made public an explanation of a topic that is better than anything I could write, why not have students read that? I envision a collection of suggested links contributed by instructors and students, with curation, ideally by peer rating and comments.

And here’s the thing: it’s an untextbook because it will not be worth printing. Much or most of the value will be in the linked sources. It will best be viewed on a computer or tablet with an internet connection. It will be user-editable so the user can annotate his or her own notes, questions and comments (no more highlighting!).

I’d love to know what you all (instructors and students) think of this idea. I’m somewhat frustrated that these “new” biology texts from Nature and OpenStax stick to the paradigm laid out by Campbell & Reece. Campbell & Reece (& now others) is an excellent text for majors, as are Freeman et al. and Sadava et al. It’s just that the differences among them are splitting pedagogical hairs, and I’m getting impatient with the whole concept of a traditional textbook for teaching and learning. I see so much great material for students published on the web every year, why not take advantage?



About jchoigt

I'm an Associate Professor in the School of Biology at Georgia Tech, and Faculty Coordinator of the Professional MS Bioinformatics degree program.
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4 Responses to An idea for an untextbook for intro biology

  1. Joey Micallef says:

    Hi Jung, I tend to agree with your perspective. I’m currently in my Masters of Teaching for secondary teaching in Science and Biology. At the moment, I am researching for an assignment involving the lack of inquiry learning in Biology teaching today. From my own observations and readings, I have seen the lack of innovation in science education with most educators in my practicums basing teaching Biology strictly to textbooks. I am intrigued by your idea of the “untextbook” because I think in order to truly teach science, students need to learn how to research and find resources on their own and find those links which extend their knowledge rather than just to learn facts from a textbook which will be regurgitated in an exam. The only problem I can see in this however, is the validity of the information on the web and how to monitor and ensure students receive correct information about topics taught in high school Biology. Any thoughts in regards to this? Open source is fantastic as there is constant addition and revision, however, I’m not sure how this could be monitored unless only certain educators/professors/researchers are allowed to add scientific comments. I think however, this untextbook would give students the opportunity to create a social scientific environment that will enable sharing of ideas and explanations to mimic the scientific communities in the research world.

    • jchoigt says:

      I think we need to teach students to carefully evaluate sources of information for reliability and possible bias. Students must learn to distinguish assertions based on solid evidence vs wishful thinking, determine where opinions and even “facts” may be presented with prejudice, and where conflict-of-interest may influence judgment. I would also encourage discussion where students find conflicting information. We instructors should not act like we are hiding certain kinds of information; we should rather encourage students to weigh the totality of evidence. Just like scientists!

  2. Pingback: Flipping a large Intro Bio class – round 2 | Jung's Biology Blog

  3. Pingback: Assessing the flipped classroom | Jung's Biology Blog

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