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Case Study

NYU College of Dentistry Takes Textbooks Online

Today's students have little patience for trudging to the library and researching a question on paper. For better or worse, they're far more likely to jump online and use tools like Google and Wikipedia to try to find answers quickly.

For the New York University College of Dentistry, battling that tendency--since unapproved online sources are often poor substitutes for peer-reviewed textbooks--is a challenge. Fighting fire with fire, the school has gradually worked to make all of the reference materials a student needs to complete a degree, from textbooks to lecture material, available online. It now has some 80 textbooks accessible through a website for reference or download, along with a wealth of other content.

The materials are submitted yearly to a company called VitalSource Technologies, which creates online versions of the content for the college in its Bookshelf product. The electronic textbooks are complete with hypertext links to references and the ability to search, print, highlight, organize, and add "sticky" notes.

Students are also given, through VitalSource, access to the NYU College of Dentistry library, and to other faculty-reviewed and -approved items.

Over the last seven years of working with VitalSource, the College of Dentistry, located in the heart of New York City, has created a vast digital library of textbooks, papers, lectures, and other internal and externally produced scholarly reference materials, all available to its students and faculty through VitalSource. For reference, a graduating student retains access to content that was current during his or her final year of school.

As use of the Internet has evolved, so has student use of Bookshelf, according to Leila Jahangiri, chair of the Department of Prosthodontics at NYU. "Students' experience with computers is changing," she said. When the e-textbook program was first introduced, printing out material to read, study, highlight, and retain was much more common. Today, she said she sees little of that. "Students are now accessing all their course materials on Bookshelf." Faculty members, she said, now tend to be the ones printing out content much more often than students.

Access and Integration
The easy access to online materials helps counter students' tendencies to go online to the general Internet for every answer, Jahangiri said. "At an age when students are relying heavily on technology to access materials, they may end up with a totally wrong fact," she said. "Wikipedia is a good example.... It's created by lay people; it has lots of [errors]. It is in no way a peer-reviewed source."  

With VitalSource, dentistry students appreciate the immediate access to materials, Jahangiri said. "Students today love [Bookshelf] in terms of immediate access to the materials, anytime, anywhere. This generation wants everything now. They're not into going to a library across the street or down the hall, searching for a textbook. They want it at their fingertips."

At the beginning of the academic year, Jahangiri explained, every department in the College of Dentistry submits books or other content they would like to see added to VitalSource. The college began the program originally with textbooks only, but over time has gradually added faculty lecture materials, PowerPoint presentations, PDF documents, manuals, selected educational sites, and online access through VitalSource to the Waldmann Dental Library at NYU.

"Students who need to access electronic journals and various other materials that are in the library ... can just go online and click," Jahangiri said, to access materials through the VitalSource platform.

Students can download those textbooks they need and use regularly; to save space, others can simply be accessed online as needed. Essentially, students and faculty can create their own personal bookshelves each academic year, downloading the basic books required, along with other materials they might use often. Content, whether left online or downloaded to a personal computer, can be arranged in folders in VitalSource for accessibility.

The College of Dentistry uses Blackboard as its course management system; each course offered by the college has a Blackboard-created page with the course syllabus, then links to information that can be found in Bookshelf. A syllabus line describing a Monday lecture can contain a link directly to the chapter that will be referenced, along with the PowerPoint presentation itself and other internally produced material, all stored in Bookshelf.

"It's almost like having a library at home," Jahangiri said. "Students literally have everything at their fingertips."

e-Book Advantages
In many ways, using the e-books is faster and easier than printed texts. For example, clicking on a hyperlink reference in a textbook in VitalSource's patented e-book format takes the user to the full citation.

"If you're looking for an exam question [as an instructor] and you want to know where that information came from, or you're giving a lecture,... it will take you immediately to the end of the chapter," Jahangiri said.

Perhaps one of the biggest benefits of Bookshelf is the time savings for faculty in finding and pulling together lecture material. "As a faculty member, I love it," Jahangiri said. "We just can't do without it. I can put a lecture together in 20 minutes, with 30 or 40 slides. You can cut and paste any of the graphic elements in any of these libraries, instantaneously. And these are high-quality images."

Copyright is not a problem; VitalSource secures a copyright that allows unlimited use of material for academic purposes.

Jahangiri said the college is looking forward to a coming version of Bookshelf, due out from VitalSource this fall, that will support audio and video. That will allow students to download lectures to their computers, iPods, or other MP3- and video-capable devices.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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