I have taught undergraduate students for nearly 35 years. In the past decade, I have seen an increasing number of students who don’t buy the textbook or, if they do, rarely read it. Many of my non-native English students struggle to understand discipline-specific terminology and complex conceptual passages. To counter these trends, I began exploring alternative ways to present content that Generation Z students would find more engaging and effective in transmitting and understanding content.
With the assistance of a Textbook Transformation Grant from the University System of Georgia in 2014, I began collaborating with an instructional technology specialist to create a dynamic, no-cost e-book for my legal environment of business class that would replace the course textbook with both original content and open educational resources. We believe the template we developed can be adapted to create an e-book of no-cost course materials for any discipline, or, alternatively, to create instructional materials to supplement a traditional textbook.
We designed the e-book (http://gsuideas.org/bus_law/index.html
) to be accessible on our campus LMS, as well as on mobile devices used by students. The e-book’s homepage is essentially a table of contents that allows users to easily navigate to any content module. The page also features a business news ticker and tabs across the top that are always visible. These tabs allow students access to a pull-down listing of modules and other available resources, including detailed instructions on the book’s features and how to use them effectively, general legal resources (traditional OER textbooks and legal dictionaries) and exercises applicable to all content areas.
Each module opens with an Infographic that provides a visual summary of module content. Tabs on the left lead the student to the module overview and a list of questions that they should be able to answer correctly by the time they have completed the module. The content tab, which includes specific learning objectives, is organized by subtopic with links to more than 1,500 readings, videos, podcasts, and websites, as well as enrichment content for deeper learning. Rather than assign specific links, we wanted students to be self-directed and to explore the text much like they do the internet, choosing topics and formats that enable them to better master module content. The final tab takes users to interactive exercises to use as practice quizzes to test their understanding of module content.
One section of this course has been designated a digital literacy class that is limited to 25 honors students. The smaller class size has enabled me to develop a number of individual and team assignments that require students to use free online tools to create their projects in a digital format instead of a traditional research paper or power point presentation. Initially, I required students to create digital timelines with embedded images, videos, data, and narrative to both explain the chain of events and analyze the legal issues that arose from a recent corporate lawsuit or scandal. A second project required students to create infographics explaining the conflict of interest provisions in the handbook of an Atlanta-based Fortune 500 company, accompanied by a short training video depicting how an employee should handle a conflict of interest situation. I quickly discovered that these students not only didn’t need formal instruction in the use of these online tools, they produced creative, thoughtful, and reasonably accurate projects.
After seeing the quality of these projects, I assigned students to create supplemental module materials that would be suitable for the e-book. With guidance, students in my honors section developed much of the visual and interactive content for the e-book: Infographics using Piktochart, study aids and games using Quizlet, and practice exercises (many with embedded videos) using Google Forms. If students granted me permission to use their assignments—and not all did—I edited the best submissions to make sure the content was accurate before embedding it in the e-book. Another assignment requires each student to write a module assessment, in which they review the content of at least 10 links in that module, rating each in a Yelp-style review, and noting any that they believe should be deleted from the e-book. Finally, I have also been able to use some of the remaining grant money to hire a former honors student each semester to assist in the development of additional infographics and exercises, as well as new content such as PowToons videos. These student-created contributions resonate with their Generation Z peers and respond to the apparent learning preferences I had observed in my students.
Students acquire, process, organize, and store information in a variety of ways called learning preferences. The four main types, recognized by the VARK 7.8 questionnaire (http://vark-learn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/The-VARK-Questionnaire.pdf
- Visual learners, who prefer to learn from graphical representations such as maps, diagrams, charts, and flowcharts
- Auditory learners, who prefer information that is heard through live and video lectures, discussion and podcasts
- Read/Write learners, who prefer to learn from written text, including power point
- Kinesthetic learners, who prefer simulations, examples, case studies, exercises, and “real life” videos
To identify their dominant learning preferences, I administered the VARK 7.8 questionnaire to 107 students in my class. After scoring 16 their answers to simple scenarios, e.g., how they would choose food at a restaurant, students received a score for each VARK category. Roughly one-third (31 percent) preferred kinesthetic learning, while 29.5 percent preferred auditory learning; less than 21 percent exhibited a reading/writing preference when we looked at the most dominant style. Nearly 90 percent of my students, however, preferred multiple learning styles. When we analyzed the data to focus on combinations of learning preferences, the dominant styles remained kinesthetic (75 percent) and auditory (64.5 percent), with visual learning (41 percent) and reading/writing (35.5 percent) less frequently preferred.
The published research is inconclusive as to whether matching teaching, content, or activities to student learning styles improves learning (Coffield et. al., 2004). But my experience in using this digital textbook suggests that providing content and activities in multiple formats that respond to kinesthetic, auditory and visual learning preferences has improved student engagement, preparation for class, and, ultimately, student performance.
I piloted the digital textbook with 172 students in the fall semester of 2015. In comparing their performance to 230 students using a traditional textbook in my other classes that term and the previous fall, the students using my e-book had a higher course grade average and lower rate of withdrawals, Ds, and Fs than those using a textbook. Students found the structure of the e–book to be user-friendly and easy to navigate; most liked being able to select content from the array of links available. They note that the e-book saves them money, is always accessible, and that the videos, podcasts, infographics, readings, and practice exercises help them to comprehend the content better. Since that first semester, students have continued to describe the e-book as “awesome,” with a recent student calling it “one of the greatest resources I've had the privilege of utilizing throughout my scholastic career.” As an instructor, you can’t ask for more.
Coffield F., Moseley D., Hall E., & Ecclestone K. (2004). A critical analysis of Learning Styles and Pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. Available at https://elearningindustry.com/critical-analysis-of-learning-styles-pedagogy-post-16-learning
Susan Willey is a clinical professor of legal studies at Georgia State University.