Supporting Biomedical Science Students with OpenStax

Robin Freeburn is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Science and Sports, The University of the West of Scotland (UWS). Teaching across all levels of the Biomedical Science and Bioscience degrees both Robin and some of his colleagues use OpenStax materials as part of their first and second year teaching. The module Cells and Molecules in particular utilises OpenStax and is often the first Biology course students study when they begin their studies at UWS.  

UWS has “the highest percentage of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds of any higher education institution [HEI] in Scotland” but also have, like many Scottish HEIs “a drive towards using more open educational resources” (OER). As part of activity around the institutional “priority” to use and create more OER, the Opening Educational Practices in Scotland (OEPS) project was invited to hold a Thinking about Open workshop at UWS during October 2015. This workshop, Robin recalled, showcased OER including open textbooks, which Robin later went and reviewed in more depth. OpenStax materials “stood out for me the most” and the decision to utilise relevant textbooks was based on a number of factors.

First, Robin had observed decreasing levels of both online and hardcopy textbook use by UWS students. Robin described how student access and use of online proprietary publisher resources had been low whilst simultaneously “the purchase of textbooks has been declining year on year, so much so that the actual bookshop on campus here in Paisley closed a few years ago.”  Robin “…wanted something that I could use online and actually be digital if the students wanted to.” Students should ideally be able to instantly and easily access a curated suite or “one-stop shop” of resources on Moodle (the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) used by UWS) on their internet enabled devices. As Robin remarked:

“So, for me, that digital aspect of the textbook was key when it came to using it, because if you put up lots of different resources in different places for the students to go, some will use them, but a large number will become, shall we say, lost along the way as they try to negotiate everything that’s put in front of them.”

A second connected consideration was the cost of textbooks themselves. As Robin noted during our conversation, he was “quite aware that [proprietary textbooks were] … a considerable cost for a lot of our students.”

Third, when reviewing the resources, it was clear that they were appropriate for UWS students. As Robin remarked “the quality was perfect” for Level Seven teaching (the first year of University study in Scotland and equivalent to the final year of English A-levels) and the UWS context. Finally, the open license on OpenStax materials made copyright permissions and acknowledgement easier. Lecture capture, and making lectures available online or on the VLE is used frequently for first year courses in particular at UWS and ensuring compliance with copyright can be difficult when using a mix of proprietary images and slides during lectures. OpenStax books have open licenses (Biology for example is licensed CC BY) which helps mitigate this type of concern and enable easy sharing and attribution. 

Use of OpenStax at UWS

OpenStax’s Biology textbook proved “mostly perfect” for the School’s needs and is used by Robin and colleagues “no differently than any of the other textbooks.”  OpenStax is the “recommended text” for two terms of the first year, in addition to select modules in the second year.  As student’s progress through their degree they utilise more specialised “accrediting body recommended textbooks” as well as a wider range of academic resources such as peer reviewed journal papers.

Apart from some early issues with bandwidth for downloading the books, Robin reported that using the textbook content was hassle free and was compatible with the frequent updating of course material:

“I’ve taken the parts that are relevant to the module and essentially … taken the chunks that are covered … and linked it to the corresponding section in moodle, rather than the whole text. In the case of the Biology one I’ve taken the first 20 chapters or so that we cover in the first Biology module. Then I think, Richard who teaches the second Biology module in trimester two, uses the chapters after that. We just basically adapted it so that it’s the chapters that are relevant will be used for each module.”

As Robin explained “being specific about the chapters [and] trying to align it well with what you’re teaching each week” is important for students, whether a proprietary or open resource is being used. In addition, each week of the module has an accompanying test. These were reported by Robin to be “relatively easy to align” with OpenStax’s Biology.

Finally, it is worth noting that resources are also introduced as ‘open’ at the start of teaching modules that include OpenStax and as part of a wider drive to “emphasise… copyright and proper referencing.” 

Feedback from Colleagues and Students

OpenStax materials have been received positively by colleagues: “Anyone who’s teaching a module where the OpenStax textbooks are available have been really quite impressed with it and quite keen to use it.” Robin remarked positively on the funding model for OpenStax textbook creation. As the books have been funded by philanthropy it is easy to explain why they can be supplied at no cost: “I suppose it can be … almost very suspicious when somebody offers you something for nothing… You got to wonder why, whereas I think, with the OpenStax [textbooks], I think it’s quite clear.”

Students also had positive feedback on the inclusion of OpenStax materials in UWS Biomedical Science courses, particularly with regard to the resources being no-cost and accessible:

“Student-wise, I think they appreciate it what the textbook offers them. As I say, the cost is a tremendous saving for them. Also, the relatively easy access of it, I think is appreciated by the students and  I’ve always had good feedback from all modular evaluations of the textbook. I’m very pleased with it in that respect.”

Next Steps

Pedagogically UWS are moving toward developing a more “active learning” approach to teaching and learning, with an accompanying reduction in the use of lectures and seminars. Currently Robin and colleagues are looking at how to make their teaching more “interactive” and develop students’ independent learning skills. As Robin noted “I think the textbook will still be important for that, but how we actually use it and refer to it might be slightly different.”


Picture credits: Robin Freeburn (used with permission), Open Textbooks by Giulia Forsythe is licensed Public Domain and screenshot of OpenStax’s Biology open textbook 


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