E-Textbooks | Q&A

Reinventing the College Textbook

A Wake Forest professor discusses a digital textbook project that uses a non-linear approach to learning.

Determined to make introductory college science courses more manageable for students, two professors at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, are developing a digital textbook based on the free, open-source learning management system Moodle.

Jed Macosko, an associated professor of physics, and A. Daniel Johnson, a senior biology lecturer, are using a $249,348 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges to develop BioBook--which they said they believe will be the precursor for the next generation of digital textbooks.

Campus Technology spoke with Macosko to find out what progress has been made so far on BioBook, the challenges they've faced in developing it, and how students are reacting to it. Here's what he had to say:

Bridget McCrea: How did the BioBook come about?

Jed Macosko: About five years ago I was involved with entrepreneurship on campus and was selected to serve on a platform with Dan Johnson, a professor from the biology department. He taught an entrepreneurship class called, "I Hate Textbooks," and we talked at length about the class and what he developed it. Last summer, someone suggested I test out technology for a grant that covered the use of technology in the classroom, and I roped Dan into submitting a grant proposal, and we won. We tested out the idea of using an iPad as a textbook and then went further by making the information non-linear. Instead of going from chapter to chapter, students get to choose their own "adventure." That's how the BioBook was born.

McCrea: What's the significance of non-linear books?

Macosko: Dan has spent a lot of time studying learning theory and is a neurologist himself. He understands the way the brain works. It has been shown that humans learn best when they can put facts into the order that makes the best sense to them. That seems pretty logical, but nobody ever uses this concept when they develop textbooks.

McCrea: What work has been done on the BioBook so far?  

Macosko: We won the grant in March and immediately kicked into production mode. Prior to winning the grant, I taught a freshman class where students wrote down little nuggets of information in a wiki-like fashion but focused on a single question and a clear learning objective. We are using a similar approach with BioBook by focusing on one nugget (such as, "What is the structure of DNA?"), learning it, getting tested on it, and moving onto the next piece of information. We've also spent a lot of time working with a company in Winston-Salem that has the skills necessary to do the non-linear programming for any platform, be it tablet, laptop, or desktop computer.

McCrea: What's the format for the BioBook?

Macosko: We're doing it in HTML5 so it will be platform agnostic. The framework is set up so that students see the information on the screen's left-hand column and track their progress on the right. It will be available both online and in a mobile format, the latter of which is important because we know that tablets will be the preferred method of reading the BioBook. Other key features include the ability to type in or write (if a stylus is available) notes and information in the book, and track learning progress.

McCrea: Have you piloted the project yet?

Macosko: We tested the book on a class of freshman and it went well, but the real pilot starts in September. We will be piloting at four different schools that will be using the BioBook for 10 percent of their classes. Then, they'll look at how students like the digital textbook compared to the 90 percent who didn't use it. The schools include WFU, a historically black university, a community college, and a small liberal arts women's college.

McCrea: What hurdles have you run into with this project?

Macosko: The hard part is making sure people don't get lost. The nice aspect of linear textbooks is that you know where you are and where you have been. The tricky part will be taking people who are accustomed to that style of text and letting them choose their own adventures. On the technical side, the programmer using the Moodle platform has hit snags when trying to figure out what features are supported by that platform and which are not. We're working through that now.

McCrea: Where is the digital textbook trend headed?

Macosko: There are other digital textbook initiatives underway at other colleges, although most involve taking existing, linear books and making them digital. BioBook, on the other hand, is truly digital from its roots. Until recently, we didn't have tablets that worked very well, and we didn't design books for digital platforms; we had screen captures of paper textbooks. Those issues have held up the digital textbook trend. Now that books are made to be digital from the ground up, I expect that we'll see a very different college landscape in five years.

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