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How close collaboration between the library and faculty at the University of Victoria has led to widespread adoption of eBooks

Lisa  Petrachenko

Lisa Petrachenko

Associate University Librarian, Learning & Research Resources, University of Victoria Libraries

Lisa Petrachenko, Associate University Librarian, at University of Victoria Libraries talks about how the library has managed to promote and embed its services and collections within the various departments at the university; how different departments have worked together with the goal of making content and other learning resources as highly accessible for students; and the changes she’s observed in student interaction with textbooks since they’ve moved online.

Read about the increase in usage of the collections licensed 10 years ago

The University of Victoria bought its first STEM eBook package from Springer in 2006. Since then, the library has substantially grown its collection to cover a wide range of subjects across STEM, Arts & Humanities and Social Sciences. The university’s significant investment in eBooks over the past decade has demanded strong collaboration between the library and faculty departments to build exposure of these titles and ensure that all students have easy access to the publications they need from day one. Today, the university is seeing a high number of eBook downloads across all subjects, with a 99% increase in usage of the collections licensed 10 years ago.

Can you describe your role at University of Victoria Libraries and your observations around eBook usage in recent years?

I’m the Associate University Librarian, Learning and Research Resources. In this role I oversee management of our collections, both print and electronic, which includes our Acquisitions and Metadata units.  Additionally, within my portfolio I work closely with our liaison librarians who provide research consultations, instruction and subject specific collection development.

Prior to my current role, I was Acquisitions & E-resources Librarian for 12 years (serving on the national consortium CRKN - Content Strategy Committee), so I’ve been involved with licensing for many years. I’ve watched these licenses evolve and observed how they are changing with the rise of Open Access and students’ expectations about the availability and accessibility of content. There’s been a lot of change over the past few years and more demands on the library to come up with creative solutions that will allow content to be readily accessible and as barrier-free as possible which presents an ongoing challenge for us.  We know that there’s a cost associated with producing high quality publications -  whether that’s the researchers time, or preserving and disseminating them. The question is: ‘What should that cost be’?

When it comes to students, there’s a desire to address the costs associated with textbooks and a campaign has been running on our campus for the last few years to raise awareness and encourage instructors to provide more affordable options. Responding to that, the University of Victoria Libraries have partnered with other departments, including the campus Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation group (LTSI) and the University of Victoria Students’ Society (UVSS), to provide grants for the creation of open education resources (OER).  When we first purchased Springer’s Engineering eBook collection it was a really pleasant surprise for faculty in our Engineering Department to discover that as part of having access to this, their students could take advantage of the MyCopy option and order print copies of the title for just $24.99. The University of Victoria Libraries was an early adopter of Springer eBooks from day one and I’ve always referred to their model of unlimited users and no digital rights management as the model that other publishers should follow. It just doesn’t make sense to put unnecessary barriers and restrictions on content.

The library has been buying eBooks from Springer since 2006, and one of our first eBook licenses came from the publisher. We purchased the Springer collection first (STEM packages) and then we wanted to provide access to humanities and social sciences packages, so we purchased the Palgrave collection which was later acquired by Springer Nature. Our collection now covers a wide range of subjects across all disciplines – it’s very important that we have broad representation of all subject areas.

Have all of the library’s publications moved online now?

All of our Springer and Palgrave publications have now moved exclusively online.  We also have a ‘print book approval plan’ and as a result of that we’ve seen the number of print titles we acquire annually declining. But at the same time, the number of eBooks we’re purchasing is growing. Today, our total number of acquisition titles is close to exceeding what we would have purchased in print alone 10 years ago. We’re seeing a big shift towards online access of books and observing the impact this has on usability. Our number of distance learners is increasing year-on-year and with eBook collections, we can offer them much greater accessibility and flexibility.

It’s relatively easy to purchase a collection of thousands of eBook titles and make them readily available. We can also monitor usage and demonstrate ROI. We have to be mindful of the fact that books can take longer for their impact to build, and not hold too much store in the first year’s usage, but focus instead on years 2-5. The great thing is that promoting eBooks is so much easier than print. Simple things like links on social media have a big impact on usage and there are so many more options available to us today to make these titles discoverable.

How frequently are you monitoring usage stats? How has the library worked with faculty to drive usage of your eBook collections?

We have regular visits from our Springer Nature Account Development Manager, Melanie Masserant, and once a year we do a major review of all subject packages to highlight which areas are getting most heavy usage. As soon as a title has been adopted for a course, that drives up adoption and usage very quickly. Faculty (particularly within our Engineering Department) have seen the benefit of having titles available as part of an eBook package, rather than having to direct their students to the bookstore to buy an expensive print copy of a textbook. We also have an effective liaison librarian program that matches a specialist librarian with each department so that they can promote specific collections and titles more intensively.

How has the library worked with faculty to drive usage of your eBook collections?

The route we went down after we started acquiring larger eBook packages was to work directly with the instructor or faculty member to make them more aware of the availability of titles in their subject. Now, they’re much more willing to engage with us directly and actively promote the titles themselves -  putting links on their CourseSpaces, for example. We’ve encouraged faculty to move away from course packs. Our copyright and scholarly communications librarian has done a lot of work to get the message across to faculty that they don’t need to create expensive course packs for students. The library now has all the content and licensing permissions to allow instructors to link to textbooks from their CourseSpaces and create online syllabi that benefit the students. This wouldn’t have been possible without the permissions we get as part of the Springer eBook package licenses. It’s been a real shift, not only for the library but also for the instructor who can now easily send links to recommended reading to their students. And there’s no doubt that student engagement with these texts has increased because they have access to a more affordable option. All of this has taken a lot of work and collaboration between the library and faculty. A mindset change like this doesn’t happen overnight. I wouldn’t say that every faculty member is willing to explore more affordable options, but we are starting to see a shift and greater awareness. The other area that we’re see a lot of growth in as part of the OER space is supplementary materials that accompany texts – quizzes, assignments etc – and this is something that’s had a big impact on student engagement as well.

Have you seen a shift in how students are interacting with textbook content now that they are accessing more titles online?

Yes, we’re definitely seeing a change here. Just the ability to download a chapter or link to chapters from within the text has changed the way students approach and read books. Undergraduates in particular love to be able to go into a publication and run keyword searches. I think we’re seeing less cover-to-cover reading – instead they’ll search for keywords within a chapter and then hone in on the related sections. What we don’t know yet is how this style of reading compares with reading the entire book/textbook when it comes to comprehension. But I also see more instructors picking and choosing sections from different sources. They’ll select chapters from several books and bring them together, presenting a range of perspectives to their students without requiring them to go out and buy every title.

I do think that the rise of eBooks has led to greater student engagement with course materials. In the past students would either have to buy a copy of the book or try to find the title in the library, often with limited success. Now, the chances of them finding the relevant text in just a few minutes has significantly increased. And with eBook collections like Springer’s, they never have to worry about access being restricted.

To help make discovery of titles as easy as possible, our library needs to commit a lot of resource to improving and enhancing book metadata. The better this data is, the better the discoverability and accessibility of individual titles. Today, undergraduates may see less of a need to go to the library for help with their research because they’re so used to doing this themselves online. That’s when the metadata becomes hugely important, helping them keep track of their searches and returning accurate results. But there’s still a lot of knowledge that librarians need to communicate to new researchers, so engagement between the library, faculty and students is still really important, and it’s why we’ve spent so much time fostering those relationships.

How have you seen the relationship between the library and the bookstore change since the widespread introduction of eBook collections?

On campus we have an Open Education Resources working group which includes the Library, the Learning and Teaching Support and Innovation group (LTSI), and the Bookstore. The bookstore has been a pivotal member of this group since day one. The staff there understand that things are changing and they’re actually very supportive of Open Education Resources. More and more of the books sold via the bookstore are digital versions, via leases or access codes. And bookstores are actively exploring new revenue models themselves - partnering with university presses or exploring other growth areas.  They’ve been very supportive of what we’re doing with OER and there really haven’t been many tensions.

The other important point is that our library typically doesn’t purchase textbooks as part of the permanent collection, mainly because they go out of date so quickly.  We do allow instructors to put a private copy of a textbook they’re using on reserve, so students could potentially come into the library and use that copy, but access is obviously restricted. For distance courses we opt to purchase the eBook where possible because it makes good financial sense if lots of people off-campus are going to need access to it. That’s another major benefit of Springer content for us – the fact their eBook packages are both highly accessible and DRM-free.

How do you manage the promotion of your eBook collections?

This is really a joint effort between the library, faculty, and our liaison librarians. We also use Lib Guides and faculty newsletters to promote new eBooks and subject-specific packages. The challenge we have is that there is so much content out there (both free and premium), that faculty are not always aware of everything that’s available to them. So it’s our job to be continually highlighting new content and resources to them as well as evaluating different models to support students. The students are already paying a premium for their tuition, so a big part of our job is to help them get quick access to the publications and other materials they need as cost effectively as possible.

Have you noticed any change in the number of students using the library?

It’s interesting - and I don’t think we’re an anomaly here – but we have really good gate counts. That might be because we have a beautiful space after a lot of renovation work. It’s been an initiative of the campus for a while now to create more welcoming and collaborative space for students to work in.  We adapted a periodical reading room seeing limited use, into a lounge space with lots of natural light. What we’ve found is that the number of people in the building has actually increased because we now have the facilities and resources to attract a broader range people that wouldn’t have tended to visit in the past.

We also have a learning commons space offering physics and maths tutorial help, along with a writing center for academic communications, a study skills center, a research support service run by our own librarians, and also the international commons which provides support for international students. Then there’s the Digital Scholarship Commons offering a collaborative space for students, along with access to software and tools to work with data and content. We’re seeing more faculty wanting to come in and use the special collections and archives, and we’ve also included a teaching room adjacent to these collections so that the instructor can bring their students to the material and have their class right next to those resources. So we’re really working to bring people in by trading the right connections and providing a good range of tools and services for both faculty and students.

Changing perspectives: Reframing Mathematics for Life Sciences Students

Alan Garfinkel

Professor Alan Garfinkel

David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA

In this interview Alan Garfinkel talks about the motivation behind his different approach to teaching calculus to biology students, along with the impact his course, book and accompanying videos have had on UCLA’s Life Sciences students. We also asked him how he is adapting to new teaching practices, what kind of results these are delivering, and how he wants to continue to change the way math is taught to make it more relevant, practical and enjoyable for students of other subjects. 

Read about Professor Garfinkel

Alan Garfinkel is Professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, where he studies cardiac arrhythmias from the point of view of nonlinear dynamics, and pattern formation in physiology and pathophysiology. In 2013, Professor Garfinkel was approached about changing the way mathematics was taught to students of Life Sciences at UCLA, with the aim of more closely applying it to the diverse range of biological systems.  He designed a specialised curriculum  - Mathematics for Life Sciences - to help his students better understand the dynamics of biological systems. Garfinkel’s curriculum had been running for four years at UCLA, with consistent year-on-year improvement in results, when his book: Modeling Life was published.

One of the aims of this textbook was to expand on the course material Professor Garfinkel had developed and rolled out at UCLA, and inspire broader adoption of this new approach. He wanted to give his own students (and those studying life sciences at other institutions) a practical tool to help them master and apply the mathematical foundations needed to develop models of dynamical processes in physiology and ecology. Using examples from neural, ecological and immune system dynamics, Modeling Life applies math to show how complex feedback relationships and counter-intuitive responses are common in systems found in nature. UCLA has seen a positive response from students of Garfinkel’s course, with 1600 successfully completing it in 2018. And engagement has been further boosted by a series of videos based on several chapters in the book. To date, chapter downloads of the eBook have exceeded 450,000.

Various professional bodies have made recommendations about training for students in the biomedical sciences. How does Modeling Life bring mathematics and the life sciences together to meet these guidelines for best practice?

“In 2009, two of the most prominent US medical institutions, HHMI (Howard Hughes Medical Institute) and AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) defined a new list of standard ‘undergraduate competencies’ required for future physicians. ‘Quantifying and interpreting changes in dynamical systems’ was at the top of this list. Two years later, the NSF and AAAS reinforced this, stating: “Studying biological dynamics requires a greater emphasis on modeling, computation, and data analysis tools.” At that time however, this list of competencies - which included knowledge of dynamic modeling of neural networks and ecological systems - was untouched by traditional freshmen calculus courses.” 

“Up until 2013, mathematics curricula - both at UCLA and across the US – were relatively  disconnected from Life Sciences programs, which meant that biology and medical students often struggled to apply the math they learnt from traditional calculus courses to their primary disciplines. We really needed to find a way of making Life Sciences students more comfortable and confident with the math content in their courses. Mathematics is an essential element of any life sciences program but, when taught in abstract, it loses its significance for undergraduate students, which has a knock-on effect on overall success rates. So at UCLA, we wanted to come up with a workable proposal for an integrated, applied mathematics curriculum that would better support our Life Sciences students during their course, and beyond into their professional lives. In 2018, just a few years on from the launch of the program, 1600 students completed the course with impressive results. During that time, I have talked to several institutions throughout the US about our course at UCLA and the organisational and teaching changes needed to successfully implement it.”    

Could you describe the impact your textbook Modeling Life has had on student behavior and achievement? How have you seen life sciences students attitudes towards mathematics change in this time?

“By the time Modeling Life was published, the Life Sciences Mathematics course (LS30A) had been running at UCLA for four years and it was this curriculum that really defined the structure and content of the book. The results we were seeing by that point were pretty remarkable. The level of engagement with Math from Biology students before and after the course were reflected in grade distributions. When compared with students of the traditional Math calculus course (Math 3A), we saw a stark difference in performance from the LS30A students who were earning an A or A+ in Physics at twice the rate of Math 3 students. The structure and content of LS30A was not only impacting performance in Life Sciences, it was also positively impacting students of related subject areas such as Physics and Chemistry. The difference stemmed from how we were teaching math to these same students - as an integral part of biological systems, rather than in abstract.

What we wanted to do with this course, and later with the book, was to carefully design and weave in a mathematics curriculum to the fabric of a biology course so that two subjects were no longer taught in isolation. What this achieved was shifting the perception of biology students in relation to mathematics. Amongst some of the outcomes we measured were: 

  • A supermajority of LS30 students (75% of science students and 80% of math students) felt that the course increased their confidence in their math and science abilities.
  • After completing LS30, 94% of the students saw the relevance of the course.
  • 67% of students who completed LS30 strongly agreed with the statement: “I saw the real-life application or relevance of what I learned”. 

The book, Modeling Life, was inspired by the LS30 curriculum, but also solidified it as an established method of teaching math to Life Sciences students at UCLA and beyond. The book and the course work in combination with one another, and have also paved the way for another teaching tool – recorded video tutorials - that we’re seeing increase student engagement even more.”

Which institutions and mathematics programs have shown interest in the book since its publication?

“The publication of Modeling Life has led to wider exposure of the Life Sciences Mathematics course, which is now being taught in the Math departments at Cornell University, University of Arizona and is being developed at the University of California, Santa Cruz. At least two Math vice-chairs have said: “we don’t want to be left behind”, so I have been visiting campuses and working  with them to implement it.

By starting with some of the most fundamental applications of math in subjects like Biology, we have been able to encourage teaching staff in other departments at UCLA, and beyond, to include applied math content in their courses. For there to be a sea change in this area it’s important to have teaching resources that support a fully integrated, interdisciplinary approach. The book offers instructors in both math and life sciences departments an opportunity to bring this approach to their classrooms. 

And responsibility for this new way of teaching math shouldn’t start and end with universities. I want to see this change taking hold earlier in education, and I’ve given a number of lectures on the subject at High Schools. Progress is very much in its infancy at this stage of education, with many students still locked into the calculus system. There’s a long way to go to make applied mathematics more relevant throughout the broader education system and that is what Modeling Life and the Life Sciences Mathematics course have been designed to support.”

How are you seeing students interact with Modeling Life in print and online and what role has SpringerLink played in this?

“There have been over 440,000 chapter downloads since the book was first made available for download on SpringerLink - equating to around 63,000 downloads of the whole book - so it’s clear that online accessibility of the title has been extremely important to students and teaching staff both at UCLA, and more broadly. 

The chapters in Modeling Life mirror the modules designed for the original course. Not long after the publication of the book I was having conversations with other academics and teaching and learning professionals about the continued effectiveness of a traditional lecture format. Out of those discussions came the suggestion that I experiment with new styles of teaching, including the flipped classroom model. I agreed to try this out and the series of videos we’d produced as an additional teaching aid seemed to be the ideal way of facilitating that. 
We ran a pilot where, for the first few weeks of the course, students watched the videos prior to class and came ready to discuss them. The content of the video and their analysis of it was what formed the basis of each session. This experiment began last fall and I was amazed by the results. Engagement with the videos by students was much higher than I had expected, and it’s transformed my perception of this style of teaching. What we’ve found is that by asking students to assimilate video content prior to class and discuss it during class, they are building and solidifying knowledge in this area more effectively than listening to a lecture for an hour (and referring to the book afterwards). We’re working on more videos this summer to support chapters 3, 4 and 5 of Modeling Life and we’ll be incorporating these into next year’s course. All of the videos we’ve produced so far are publicly available and can be freely used by other institutions who are looking to integrate mathematics modules with Life Sciences courses.” 

How do you see teaching practices in the Life Sciences evolving over the next 5-10 years, and what are your priorities as an academic and teacher in this field?

“Since running the flipped classroom pilot, I’m a firm believer in the benefits of this model for Life Sciences students and the impact it can have on their learning. The pilot really came about by chance, but I’m now considering developing a flipped version of the entire course, taking the structure and results of the pilot as a basis. It’s really encouraging to hear that University of California, Santa Cruz is piloting the Life Sciences Mathematics course and that others are planning to follow in their footsteps. The flipped version of the course, combined with the videos and book, make it possible to expand and replicate this style of teaching across the US and beyond.”

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