Apps Are Not Textbooks (Not Yet)

“Apps” seem like fun. “Textbooks” seem like a bore.

“Apps” are interactive. “Textbooks” are static.

“Apps” are current. “Textbooks” become outdated after a year (try selling your textbooks back to a bookstore and you will be lucky to get a third of the purchase price back).

Could apps one day replace textbooks?

There are different educational apps in the environmental field that are available at the touch of our fingertips. Here, I explore some environmental education apps that deserve admiration.

Plants by Tinybop

This app gives you divine-like power in controlling ecosystems. Want to make it rain? Tap on the fluffy white clouds. Feeling a bit destructive? Create a wildfire by rubbing rain clouds together to create lightning. Want to change the season? Speed through time using the time dial and see how the landscape transforms.

In this beautifully animated app, children and adults can explore different biomes (temperate forest and desert biomes are featured in this release. Other biomes will become available in the future). In each biome, you can learn what kinds of trees, plants, animals are common. By zooming in onto selected plants, you can learn the vocabularies that are used in biology. Want to introduce your kids to the concept of reproduction but don’t know how to approach the subject? Start with the concept of pollination, which you can demonstrate in the app.

PollinationAs much fun as this app was for me, it wasn’t as informative as I hoped it would be. I learned to label the different parts of a plant, identify certain types of trees and animals, gained a slight understanding of relationships between fauna and flora. Without guidance or prior knowledge of the natural world, this app seemed like an identifying and memory game more than an educational tool. To unlock the full potential of this app requires adult interaction. Yes, parents, this is not a babysitting app. If you really want your child to learn about the natural world through an app, you’re going to have to be the teacher.

Plants by Tinybop provides a handbook that further explains concepts, processes, and relationships in ecosystems. Think of it as a mini-version of a biology or earth science textbook that gives you just enough information to get the cogs in your child’s mind turning. The handbook also provides some discussion questions to challenge your child in critical thinking and perhaps even prompt further research. A very useful feature of this app is the recording tool. Kids and parents can record their questions, answers, and discussions. Through a universal dashboard, parents can track their kid’s activities and progress. So, this app has great educational potential. However, the burden lies on the parents/teachers to provide guidance and information to their child.

I think that Plants by Tinybop may be a precursor to the future of textbooks. Imagine having all the in-depth facts and figures that are usually found in textbooks represented in an interactive app. Instead of being spoon-fed information as textbooks tend to do, apps have the potential for a child to discover concepts and learn at their own pace, in their own style. Of course, guidance from a knowledgeable adult makes the learning experience much more impactful than just giving a tablet for your child to play on.

WWF Together by World Wildlife Fund

This award-winning app (2013 Apple Design Award Winner, 2013 App of the Year Runner-Up) is sure to delight animal lovers of all ages. In this app, you can see a narrative video of a first encounter with a tiger, hear what a dolphin hears, view stunning photographs of blue whales, get a glimpse of what it feels like to be a monarch butterfly making its 2800-mile journey. Along with facts and figures, this app gives a deeper understanding of some endangered species than what textbooks can provide. The app is a far cry from being as informative as a textbook on endangered species, but it does encourage activism in conservation, which is a lacking feature in textbooks.

This app is not meant to teach your child all that there is to know about tigers, giant pandas, and other endangered species. However, the app can spark your child’s curiosity to the point of conducting their own research on an animal of their choosing. The news section keeps you current on what is happening in the animal kingdom. The app also provides a way for you to get involved in WWF’s conservation efforts. What good is knowledge if you can’t/won’t apply it?

Can apps replace field guides? ABSOLUTELY.

Audubon Trees by Green Mountain Digital

Before the age of the Internet, identifying trees included lugging around a thick, heavy, field guide on your hike. The over-simplified black-and-white drawings of leaves and tree shapes never seemed to match what I would see on my hikes. This app came in very handy when I was a field researcher at Milford Experimental Forest. One of my task was to identify tree species surrounding the American Chestnut Restoration study plot. The ability to use different search options helped me to identify trees quicker than flipping through a field guide. Along with in-depth descriptions of available species, high quality photos of tree flowers, fruits, leaves, barks, gave me confidence in identifying trees. The app also has a sharing feature (if you are lucky enough to have Internet service in the middle of a forest) which you can share your sightings with friends and fellow tree identifiers.

More about Audubon Trees by Green Mountain Digital 

Apps have great potential in replacing textbooks in the future. Information will truly be at our fingertips.

If you know of other great environmental education apps, please let me know:


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