BioBook: A Flexible Alternative to Traditional Textbooks

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Title of Abstract: BioBook: A Flexible Alternative to Traditional Textbooks

Name of Author: A. Daniel Johnson
Author Company or Institution: Wake Forest University
PULSE Fellow: No
Applicable Courses: All Biological Sciences Courses
Course Levels: Across the Curriculum, Introductory Course(s)
Approaches: Material Development, Mixed Approach
Keywords: gateway course, inquiry learning, constructivism, open-source

Name, Title, and Institution of Author(s): Sabrina D. Setaro, The Adapa Project Jed C. Macosko, Wake Forest University

Goals and intended outcomes of the project or effort, in the context of the Vision and Change report and recommendations: General biology is 1 of 5 college ‘gateway’ courses, impacting majors and non-majors alike. Yet 30% (~1 in 3) of students fail it their first time. Many leave STEM- or health-related career tracks; others, college entirely. Reforms in instructional approaches are needed to remedy this, but we simultaneously must rethink how content knowledge is provided to students. Teachers and students need flexible, scalable alternatives to traditional printed textbooks. Next-generation content resources must be reliable, yet also build on current evidence of best practices, support a variety of instructional models, and adapt to new modalities as they emerge.

Describe the methods and strategies that you are using: Using wiki markup and other robust open-source technologies, we assembled the ALT Framework, a set of no/low-cost tools that eliminate many barriers to collaborative content development, authoring, workflow management, distribution, and evaluation. Within this framework we developed BioBook, an open-access alternative to traditional print texts. BioBook supports how students learn naturally, and provides the flexibility needed to match many different learning styles. Students do more than just learn biology concepts; they develop thinking skills that help them master biology. Instructors blend their own pre-existing resources with ours, and reorganize, revise, modify and extend BioBook to meet their students specific needs and classroom goals. Students can explore topics in a sequence that makes most sense to them, and use the specific supplemental tools that match how they learn most effectively. Social media supports peer-to-peer collaborative learning. Integrated self-assessment makes it easy for students identify what they do not understand yet.

Describe the evaluation methods that you used (or intended to use) to determine whether the project or effort achieved the desired goals and outcomes: During AY2011-12, 504 students and 15 instructors at 4 colleges and universities conducted a 2-week evaluation of a pilot module on Mendelian and molecular genetics. Using institutional data we compared course completion, mastery, deeper learning, and persistence of control (n=101) and test (n=403) groups. End-of-course surveys estimated student self-efficacy in learning about STEM; rated student attitudes and mindset towards science in general, and biology specifically; and asked students and instructors about their experiences with BioBook.

Impacts of project or effort on students, fellow faculty, department or institution. If no time to have an impact, anticipated impacts: Overall, >80% of students and instructors said they would prefer to use BioBook versus a typical textbook. Over 60% of students said it helped them: 1) understand concepts and connections; 2) track learning progress; 3) see connections among key biological concepts; & 4) see what they do not yet know. Over 50% said they would spend more time studying biology using BioBook. We also observed small but consistent gains in students’ thinking about biology. Student mean, median, and maximum scores on CLASS-Bio (which compares student views to those of a practicing expert) were higher for BioBook users. The same students also scored higher on 13 items from The Biology Self-Efficacy Scale (a measure of student confidence in their ability to learn and understand biology-related concepts.) This project has had a dramatic impact on undergraduate students working as content developers, editors, artists, and authors too. Most become highly invested and begin telling friends how much more they are learning about biology.

Describe any unexpected challenges you encountered and your methods for dealing with them: We experienced 3 primary barriers to change: faculty inertia, faculty resistance to changing past practices, and institutional administration. Given faculty workloads continue to rise, there is obvious attraction in “staying with what has always worked.” Faculty did not care for formal presentations of learning theories and best practices (i.e., lectures); instead we captured interest more easily if we focused on ‘pain points,’ i.e., particular teaching concerns or challenges, then showed how BioBook might address those issues. We also drew heavily on diffusion of innovation models from Rogers et al., focusing on activating local communication networks, recruiting central opinion leaders, and providing opportunities for potential adoptees to observe and try out our approach before committing to scale-up. Administrative hurdles were our greatest challenge; outside of our own institution, data on student persistence or performance were very difficult to obtain, even after students provided informed consent.

Describe your completed dissemination activities and your plans for continuing dissemination: Instructors in 4 courses at WFU (3 in biology, 1 in physics) are using the ALT Framework to support collaborative writing projects by their students. We continue to recruit faculty and students to develop modules for BioBook, and to use the framework to build similar open-access resources. Since the original trials we have expanded BioBook significantly. Currently it has >300 pages on topics spanning all of non-majors general biology, all with learning goals and links to online resources, and most with self-assessment quizzes. WFU has adopted a full-semester version of BioBook as their primary course textbook for nonmajors, and a testing partner has committed to adoption for Fall 2013. BioBook is available for use as a sole classroom text, supplemental text, or for individual study through our webhost ( Students and instructors can access the public edition of BioBook at no cost (under the terms of a Creative Commons license). Instructors who want to build an alternative edition or use advanced tracking tools can choose one of several adoption strategies. We established The Adapa Project to manage scale-up, adoption by institutions, and applications of our authoring toolset to other topics. Our goal is to find or build, evaluate, and distribute additional tools and resources that embody current research on how people learn, can adapt to local needs, are effective and affordable on a broad scale, and make science more accessible and engaging.

Acknowledgements: We wish to thank Rogan Kersch (WFU Provost), Rick Matthews (CIO and Assoc. Provost for IS and Technology, WFU), and the program officers and staff of NGLC for their financial support and their enthusiasm for this project.