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When the textbook you need hasn’t been written yet

Professors have trouble finding just the right textbook. And even when they do, students have trouble affording it. The NCSU Libraries Alt-Textbook program addresses both of these disappointingly common problems—and improves instruction in the process.

What teaching resources do you use in a field so emergent that the textbooks aren’t written yet? College of Textiles professor Martin W. King faced that question for his undergraduate Biotextile Product Development course (MT 366).

His syllabus lacked a definitive, introductory text that covered the many medical applications of textile products, so he worked with colleagues to co-author one. However, the field’s rapid rate of development made it challenging for its traditional textbook publisher to keep content up to date. Another problem—the book retailed for a whopping $330.

"I was frustrated by the experience of spending several years writing a comprehensive textbook for my students to use,” King says, “only to find that a publisher listed the book at a price far too expensive for my students to pay.”

Looking for a partner on campus with expertise in instructional design and scholarly communication, King reached out to Greg Tourino, a research librarian with the NCSU Libraries. Working together, King and Tourino developed the idea of empowering students to create their own textbook as the major research-based assignment for MT 366.

Too much $, not enough learning

For a college student today, a single semester’s worth of textbooks averages about $600. Students, educators, and legislators alike have become concerned with how textbook affordability is hindering education. According to a recent U. S. Public Interest Research Group report, two-thirds of undergraduates have not bought a book because they couldn’t afford it. Half of them choose their courses based on textbook costs.

It’s not just about the money—students find online textbooks more useful than traditional ones.

Some educators are questioning how effective textbooks are at facilitating student learning. The traditional textbook still takes the rote-memorization approach to teaching, despite the development of more sophisticated understandings of how to promote student learning.

This has led to an increased interest in open educational resources (OERs) across post-secondary education. Early inquiries into OERs have indicated that they can facilitate student learning at least as well as commercial textbooks. OERs are the Alt-Textbook program’s wheelhouse.

Let the students make the textbook

Since faculty-produced OERs have been successful at facilitating learning, some researchers wondered whether students might benefit from participating in their creation. Wendy Drexler, a visiting assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Education, suggests that the experience of designing their own instructional materials enables students to create personal learning environments. Will Cross, the Director of Copyright and Digital Scholarship at the NCSU Libraries and the Director of the Alt-Textbook program, agrees: “Many students tune out when confronted with stale, one-size-fits-all textbooks that emphasize facts over thinking.”

King was interested in an instructional approach that would give his students an opportunity to critically evaluate medical device information. Beginning in 2011, students working in small teams were asked to use WordPress to create a robust, encyclopedia-like entry on a specific medical textile product.

Over the course of the semester, students worked with research librarians to locate information on a medical textile's entire life cycle: how a device is manufactured, the selection of the materials, the cost of production, as well as the device’s clinical relevance and medical efficacy. For a student researcher new to this sector of textile manufacturing, a manufacturer’s website seems like the logical place to gather this information. Through this assignment, students learn the value of consulting scholarly resources licensed by the NCSU Libraries to verify a manufacturer’s claims, creating projects that use a surprising variety of information from sources that span the medical textile and device product development lifecycle.

Tourino recalls seeing projects that have cited sources including journal articles, standards, business and legal information, and regulatory information. “This assignment gives students a unique opportunity to connect a lot of loose threads into a single, synthesized document,” he says.

For students, the process of creating these pages is more engaging than a typical term paper, and resembles the type of design work they are likely to do as professionals working in the textile, medical device, pharmaceutical or related industry. Cross notes that, in addition to preparing students for the workplace, “this sort of participatory learning grounds instruction in dynamic, lived experiences and returns ownership of the course to instructors and students. Programs like this can help turn students from passive consumers of generic content into active participants in a personalized learning environment.”

In contrast to the text-based assignments students often hand in for classes, the student groups in MT 366 create dynamic pages that feature multimedia content such as high resolution images, embedded GIFs, and streaming videos. Research librarians from NCSU Libraries provide hands-on assistance over the course of the entire semester on how to embed a streaming video, how to appropriately attribute an image, and any other technical hurdles students may encounter during the design process.

A before and after comparison of a coronary angiogram

In addition to creating their own pages, students are also required to comment on the pages created by the other groups, learning how to provide constructive feedback and interact professionally with others in a digital space.

Students also invite an outside expert or professional in the field to comment on their page, and are expected to make revisions as suggested by the expert. For example, a group in the 2015 cohort developing a page on tissue engineered nerve guides received guidance from  Dr. Anthony B. Brennan, a faculty member in the University of Florida’s Department of Biomedical Engineering. Dr. Brennan provided valuable feedback to improve the page, suggesting how the students could improve the accessibility of their content by providing definitions and explanations for medical terms that exceed the expected knowledge of the general public. Through this process, students learn not only how to generate a dynamic website through the WordPress platform, but also how to work in teams as well as to respond to constructive criticism of their work.

Now in 2016, the pages include six years’ worth of entries, spanning topics from angiographic catheters to surgical sutures. Once completed, these pages not only serve as a textbook for the current cohort of students, but also become a resource that can be consulted by the next cohort of students, as well.

While traditional term papers are completed, handed into the instructor, and then gather dust in a filing cabinet, these pages remain active and open to the public. As a result, these pages help NC State meet its obligations as a land-grant institution of making the knowledge of the university available to the public, as they increase the public’s access to current information on complex medical topics.

When joining the NCSU Libraries in 2015, Alex Carroll, Research Librarian for Engineering and Biotechnology, was immediately impressed by the quality of these pages produced by undergraduates. Carroll notes that while Federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide abundant resources on topics like heart disease and cancer, “there is very little medical device information that is freely available and accessible to a lay audience, so these types of resources help to fill a significant gap in consumer health literature.”

Tourino adds that “once students understand the potential value of these pages and that they have far more permanence than a traditional research paper, they begin to develop a sense of ownership over their pages and pride in their final products.”