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HHMI investigator Matthew Scott, a professor at Stanford University and coauthor of Molecular Cell Biology, is a fan of another nonprofit site with free content, Khan Academy. Developed by an MIT graduate named Salman Khan, the site offers upward of 2,000 video tutorials that consist of scrawled notes and colored doodles on an electronic blackboard, with Khan’s voice explaining it all. The content leans heavily toward precollege math and physics but also includes dozens of higher-level biology and organic chemistry videos. Teachers can have their students log on as a class, then direct them to particular videos and assessment exercises and track their process.
“It’s enormously well done,” says Scott. “I use it, my kids use it, and friends who are Stanford faculty use it.”
At Harvard University, students may be fused to their iPads in their off hours, but they’re not using them in their undergraduate biology classes yet. Instead, teachers rely on the latest in interactive technology such as animated movies that illustrate cellular processes and handheld clickers to gauge the class’s understanding of a particular concept and drive discussion.
“After watching an animation of, say, the transport of proteins across a nuclear envelope, we’ll have a discussion of the core process that’s being shown,” says Robert Lue, a professor of molecular and cellular biology and director of Life Sciences Education at Harvard University as well as an HHMI undergraduate program director. “But then we’ll have a discussion in the context of a living cell—what are some of the things we didn’t show and how are they going to affect the process we’re talking about?
“It’s both a very rapidly expanding area and one where there are still a lot of things that haven’t been settled yet. That means the life sciences courses and textbooks are constantly responding to revisions of fundamental paradigms.”
“It becomes a real teaching tool, not like a passive look at something,” says Lue, who runs Harvard’s Biovisions program for digital animations.
The landscape of textbooks is changing rapidly, says Lue, but he’s less interested in whether it brings the latest whizbang interactive features to a nearby screen than in how it’s changing to meet teachers’ increasingly well-defined and precisely planned pedagogical goals. Textbook authors used to focus just on clearly explaining concepts, but “authors now have to spend a lot of time thinking not just about how to present something but about how to teach it,” says Lue.
“In the past, textbooks were simply laying out the information in the written word with still diagrams that were clear. But there is so much we have learned about how best to teach material, how best to use interactivity and activity-based learning methods,” he says. For example, students in biology, computer science, and visual art courses can work together to develop their own scientific animation.
“It’s not just the material between two covers,” Lue says. “It’s also a whole program in terms of how to teach more effectively.”
“The textbook is always there as a framework,” says Dennis Liu, who heads HHMI’s education resources group, which produces materials to supplement textbook content for HHMI’s BioInteractive website. “We have to be mindful of what teachers are teaching now while also exposing them to new content and ideas and helping them to inject cutting edge research into their curricula.” Liu hopes to see BioInteractive animations, some of which are being adapted for smart phones and the iPad, become incorporated as digital assets in new textbook-like products. “I can imagine future partnerships with authors and publishers to custom design some of our media to match new digital textbook content,” says Liu.
One dilemma in the life sciences is how to distill into a single course the “enormous explosion” of information that has come with breakthrough discoveries in the past 20 to 30 years. “It’s both a very rapidly expanding area and one where there are still a lot of things that haven’t been settled yet,” says Lue. “That means the life sciences courses and textbooks are constantly responding to revisions of fundamental paradigms.”