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Business Officer Magazine
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Computers as Textbook Co-Authors

Penn State’s BBookX app scans open educational resources, gathering details that help faculty create highly customized content—while saving students money on printed textbooks.

By Barton K. Pursel

If you sat down to write a textbook, you'd undoubtedly spend years on the project. Yet last fall, I developed a 16-chapter textbook for my introductory Information Science and Technology class, in about 12 hours. The rapidly accelerated schedule came courtesy of human-assisted computing—specifically, an application we've developed at Penn State and call BBookX. (Read also, "Take Your Pick," in the February issue of Business Officer magazine.)

Faculty members who wish to draw on open educational resources (OER)—free and easily accessible materials for teaching, learning, and research purposes—face a big roadblock. The OER universe is so vast that curating all the relevant information is both time-consuming and overwhelming. With BBookX, a computer essentially serves as the faculty member's collaborator and does the bulk of the work by quickly finding and retrieving content.

The first step in using the application is to fill in a blank table of contents, using chapter headings, key phrases, learning objectives, and so forth. Based on that outline, BBookX accesses Wikipedia—the largest body of OER content available—and almost immediately begins identifying relevant content. Guided by what content the user keeps or rejects, the application's algorithms adjust accordingly when the next Wikipedia search occurs. Every time BBookX goes through the feedback loop, it becomes smarter about what to look for, which leads to highly customized content when combined with other faculty-generated materials.    

The free OER textbook I created last fall was available online, through a link within the university's learning management system. Based on the 150 students in the course—who would have paid between $100 and $150 for a printed textbook—we collectively saved them about $16,000. For a homework assignment, my students used BBookX themselves to develop a three-chapter book that illustrated the intersection of their discipline with information sciences and technology. Afterward, 60 percent of the students reported learning something they hadn't known before about their discipline based on the content returned by the BBookX algorithms.

In addition to the cost savings, the application's ability to uncover new material appeals to faculty members. We've tested BBookX with 12 different instructors, and all have commented on its "discoverability" of information they hadn't encountered before. In addition to creating open texts, faculty are incorporating the new information into their lectures, case studies, and supplemental resources for students.

BBookX is still very much in the research and development phase. We are seeking partners to continue the development of BBookX for more widespread use.

Barton K. Pursel is the manager of faculty programs for teaching and learning with technology and the co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Pennsylvania State University, State College, Pa.


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