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An icon of a textbook appearing out of a computer screen.

Science faculty reach global audience with free online textbook

By Elana Roldan

Thanks to the efforts of College of Science faculty, nearly 800 Oregon State students can now cross expensive anatomy textbooks off their to-buy list each year. Incredibly, so can the rest of the world.

Faculty members within the College of Science spearheaded the eight-year-long development of a free online textbook entitled “Anatomy & Physiology.” Published on Pressbooks, a platform for open-source educational content, the book rocketed to the second-most-viewed Pressbooks publication of 2023. It garnered 2.7 million views and was accessed in places as distant as Australia, Ghana and India. Started solely for Oregon State and nearby universities, the experts and educators behind the book have been astounded by its reach.

“It’s so wonderful to imagine that there are people all over the world who have increased their understanding of how their bodies work because of this,” said Devon Quick, senior instructor II within the Department of Integrative Biology and collaborator on the textbook. “I never imagined a world like this, where millions of humans across the globe would be able to have authoritative, accurate information about the way the human body works.”

With its creation led by Senior Instructor II Lindsay Biga, the project not only saves Oregon State students about $100,000 annually and provides a quality resource to a global audience, but also brings a diverse perspective to human anatomy and physiology many textbooks lack.

A headshot of Lindsay Biga.

Senior Instructor II Lindsay Biga.

Bringing the cost to the floor

In her 10 years of teaching Introduction to Human Anatomy and Physiology, Biga has had a constant stream of publishers visiting her office to pitch their textbooks. She became frustrated not only with their steep prices ranging from $150-200, but also that digital copies sold to students could not be kept long-term should they seek further schooling.

“We felt like our students were being offered a product that they didn’t need for a lot of money and a dependable alternative was not available,” she said.

Fortunately, an opportunity for change emerged from an OSU partnership with Open Oregon Educational Resources in 2015. Biga, alongside colleagues from other higher education institutions in Oregon, was given the chance to apply for funding to improve upon an existing textbook that could then be shared more broadly. After their grant approval, she led a collaborative team project to create a better option for students. Weekends and days off became time to work on the book, with collaborators meeting at Oregon State and dividing chapters based on expertise.

Staci Bronson, who teaches online human anatomy and physiology courses at Oregon State and worked on the textbook, said, “Having a group of instructors and context experts help make sure that everything in this book is current, up-to-date and accurate has been really confidence-inspiring in adopting and using this textbook for all of us.”

A headshot of Staci Bronson.

Instructor Staci Bronson.

A second round of funding in 2020 allowed the team to further edit chapters, refine resources and finally publish a revised edition in 2023, giving students access to the free, reliable textbook instructors had envisioned years prior. Between Bronson, Quick and Biga’s courses, about 800 Oregon State students no longer need to pay up each year.

“At the start, we were finding ways to minimize costs, but we couldn’t eliminate them completely. With this online textbook and some of our other approaches, we have reduced the costs to the very floor that we could possibly bring them to,” Quick said.

Even with this monumental achievement, there was another goal for the book the team set out to accomplish.

True, broad and inclusive

Human anatomy and physiology textbooks, says Biga, can fall into restrictive perspectives based on dated approaches. Figures are particularly reflective of this, which the team discovered in the original textbook. The imagery almost exclusively depicted white models, especially white men, and the instructors sought to bring a more well-rounded lens to the material.

“A focus on inclusivity through both language and through imagery for representation was really the goal, and inclusivity in terms of thinking about who was creating the imagery and being included in the project,” Quick said.

Devon Quick in a headshot.

Senior Instructor II Devon Quick.

The team partnered with student artists to make figures that could not only be tailored to their needs as instructors, underscoring specific anatomical structures of the body for clarity, but would also allow for greater inclusion.

Sexual systems were another subject in the textbook that the team found needed updating. The original content was seen as a rigid portrayal of reality that caused more harm than benefits to the reader. Passionate about creating an inclusive book, the authors set to making changes.

“We have found that there are individuals who share bigoted points of view about how humans should be in their opinion and use things like anatomy textbooks as evidence that there are men and women, it’s genetically determined and that’s it. A lot of textbooks are really basic and treat it like a binary, and we don’t want to be part of that problem,” Biga explained.

She continued, “We wanted to lay down factual information that takes a true and broad viewpoint and doesn’t oversimplify in a way that excludes people.”

Meeting the mission

Every goal the team set, whether addressing accessibility or inclusivity, was done with students and instructors of Oregon in mind. They could never have predicted how far their local effort would reach when the book was published last fall. Not until the numbers began pouring in at a staggering 100,000 views per month.

“I was totally clueless that it had taken on a really broad usership for people who need good technical information and for whom it’s a priority to have it for free. I was floored that we had that many viewers,” Biga said.

Nigeria, the Philippines and the U.K. are some of the book’s top user locations since launch. Students across the globe have full access to everything the resource has to offer, from accurate and diverse imagery to expert-curated text.

The book’s reception has not only been a validation of the team’s efforts but also an endorsement of their push for free, open-source materials. Bronson, who instructs the Ecampus human anatomy and physiology courses, gleaned lessons from the book’s development process that she used to design a wider digital ecosystem of similar resources.

From creating free laboratory simulations to 3D anatomical models, including one of the entire human skeleton, Bronson has ensured students in any region of the world with internet access can use these pivotal tools. She also presented the resources at a conference to further share them beyond Oregon State.

With the textbook’s original funding coming from the university and its partnership with Open Oregon Educational Resources, Bronson is grateful for the support that has made these tools possible.

“I love that we work at an institution that is willing to put money towards things that are free for everyone and improve access to education and literacy for all, not just for tuition-paying students. It feels really good to be in that sort of company,” she said.

These efforts also align with the College of Science Strategic Plan, a goal of which is to deliver high-quality, innovative science education that is approachable for all students. Projects like “Anatomy and Physiology” led by the College’s faculty continue to realize this ambition.

“It feels like it’s helping meet the mission of the institution to serve all of Oregon,” Quick said of the textbook. “Not just OSU, but all of Oregon and the world.”