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?