Biology 101 and other introductory college science courses can be a significant barrier to overall college success. This well-documented finding led A. Daniel Johnson, a senior lecturer in biology, and Jed Macosko, an associate professor of physics, to search for a new way to help their students learn about genetics, ecology and evolution.
“Biology textbooks, and science textbooks in general, are full of dense language, excessive content and a rigid format that discourages learning,” said Johnson. “Current electronic textbooks are no better than their print counterparts.”
What started as an idea for an iPad application evolved into a more accessible tool for the next generation of electronic textbooks, which Johnson and Macosko call “BioBook.” BioBook was created within a Moodle-based learning management system designed by Odigia. Moodle is a free, open-source Web application that educators can use to create online learning sites. “Students can access BioBook from desktop PCs, laptops, iPads and mobile devices,” said Johnson.
The research and development of BioBook are funded by a $249,348 grant from Next Generation Learning Challenges, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.
After 14 years teaching college biology and developing inquiry laboratories at Wake Forest and the University of Virginia, Johnson is a champion of research that shows non-linear, collaborative interaction increases both learning and student engagement. These ideas were the foundation for BioBook.
A 2010 survey by the National Association of College Stores revealed 76 percent of students voluntarily chose printed texts over digital. “Our own local surveys confirmed the national results that most students don’t see the value of eTexts,” said Johnson. “Most eTexts are little more than a printed textbook on the screen, which does not take advantage of the interactive opportunities digital media offers.”
Whereas traditional books offer content in the order prescribed by the publisher, BioBook presents small, manageable chunks of information in a nonlinear way that supports a variety of different learning styles. It is organized by a root-branch-leaf structure that allows students to explore and master topics in any order that makes sense to them.
Each root presents a broad, fundamental concept of biology, and branches break down root topics into areas of focus for study. To support each branch, multiple leaf pages provide the actual information students need to learn. Each leaf poses challenge questions using a combination of text, multimedia and social media that lead students to accomplish one or two well-defined learning outcomes. Students can access the information contained in each leaf when they need it, in the way that strikes them as logical. Students can also create connections to link topics, make notes or aggregate and annotate information to reinforce learning.
Personal Progress Maps embedded in BioBook track the nodes that have been visited, the amount of time spent on each, questions posed to the instructor and other students, assessments completed, and the time spent on other learning tasks. “The Personal Progress Map serves as a guide but it also makes students accountable for their learning and encourages them to persist,” said Johnson. Instructors can see and use these maps to monitor an individual student’s progress in real time.
“The flexibility and interactivity of a BioBook creates a learning experience beyond the capability of any print textbook,” Johnson asserts. He has already tested this hypothesis with a 2007 pilot study to compare the preferences and learning outcomes of groups reading chapters created with key features of BioBook against a regularly assigned textbook. To date, 80 students at Wake Forest University in three separate groups have consistently rated features of BioBook higher than a competing print text.
In 2010, 19 students in a first-year seminar course led by Macosko showed how engaging the BioBook model is by spending a semester creating new leaves for BioBook.“The quality of the nodes, speed with which students generated them, and their enthusiasm for writing the nodes were all very high, as measured by an end-of-class survey and reflection essays,” reported Johnson.
The Next Generation Learning Challenges grant will allow Johnson, Macosko, Kristin Redington Bennett from the Department of Education, and their technology partners at Odigia to continue developing and evaluating BioBook in biology courses designed for non-majors at four regional institutions: Wake Forest University, a private four-year university; Salem College, a private women’s college; Winston-Salem State University, a historically black state university; and Guilford Technical and Community College, an open-admission two-year community college.