BioBook to bring new generation of e-learning

Rachel Cox spent the tail end of her biology for non-majors class delving into the intricacies of global climate change. Cox, a sophomore, wrapped up the course taught by senior biology lecturer Dan Johnson with a final presentation this week.

While many students have taken Johnson’s course before, Cox’s experience this spring was unique. She was one of a handful of students asked to test out a new kind of e-textbook as the sole take-home educational resource for a semester.

BioBook is an electronic learning tool that offers content in an unconventional way. Unlike the thick and convoluted textbook of old, BioBook is accessible by smart-phone, tablet or computer. Developed by Wake Forest researchers, it breaks down complex and lengthy topics into small, manageable chunks of knowledge that can be changed and updated as educators see fit. It also provides students instant access to multimedia from national research organizations such as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in addition to traditional text, class lectures and practice quizzes.

“If a page uses an unfamiliar word, there’s usually a hyperlink on the word that will lead to its definition,” Cox said. “Features like this make it better than many of the textbooks I’ve used in the past.”

Within three years, the approximately $30 BioBook is expected to replace the $200+ paper textbooks of up to 1,200 students taking general biology at Wake Forest and Forsyth Technical Community College. More students and schools are expected join the initiative as well, said Johnson, BioBook’s principal developer.

The new collaborative initiative officially kicked off this semester. It will be incorporated into a multi-state $15 million Department of Labor initiative (led by Forsyth Tech) to help displaced workers find a new home in the 21st century workforce.

“We particularly appreciate that BioBook can be offered to students at little to no cost,” said Michael Ayers, dean of Forsyth Tech’s Math Science and Technology Division. “This is important because many students struggle to purchase science books that may cost hundreds of dollars.”

Ayers said the new initiative is part of a longstanding relationship between Wake Forest and Forsyth Tech. For example, Forsyth Tech’s nanotechnology students learn how to work with electron microscopes at Wake Forest.

“We hope to continue to strengthen our partnership by helping to improve BioBook and by working together to produce other science books,” Ayers said.

Johnson said BioBook takes material and content developed in a biology for non-majors class and puts it into a malleable and easy-to-access format so that educators, regardless of institution, can use the material and evaluate it as they see fit. “So rather than constantly reinventing the wheel,” he said. “If something works, it is already in a sharing and ready to go format.”

Johnson and Jim Curran, chair of Department of Biology at Wake Forest, both used BioBook as the sole resource for their biology for non-majors classes. Slides, lecture notes, and supplemental material were added to the book’s data bank as the semester went on, giving students a wealth of new information to choose from, Curran said. “It is something I think students find very helpful and I plan on using in future classes.”

Perhaps the most useful aspect of BioBook will be its adaptability. Johnson said it will enable both teachers and researchers to track what learning tools worked for students at the end of the semester. Educators can then use this data to hone future lesson plans based on what is most effective for their particular brand of student.

“The BioBook by definition is a big data set generator,” Johnson said. “If you see that a particular resource isn’t working or doesn’t fit the way a particular group of students likes to learn, then you can change it.”

Johnson said BioBook has the potential to tackle some of the big questions emerging around the 21st century classroom-like whether or not to incorporate social media as a learning tool. “The data is going to allow us to ask these really interesting questions that will help to improve electronic learning materials in the classroom,” he said.

As for Cox, she said she would like to see more reading intensive classes adopt a similar platform in the future. She said it would not only be useful from an academic standpoint but would also save her some cash. “The total cost of my textbooks would be under $100 if some of my other classes did this; last semester it would’ve been almost cut in half.”

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