Undergraduate students in Dr. Wyeth Wasserman’s cancer genetics class had a unique assignment: to write their own e-textbook for their course.
“Textbooks cost too much and students should have high quality, free materials,” says Dr. Wasserman, who led the project. He is executive director of BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute, professor in the Department of Medical Genetics at the University of British Columbia and a senior scientist with the Centre for Molecular Medicine and Therapeutics.
“I’m a strong believer in the global open access movements coming out of the IT world and moving that to educational materials for students,” says Dr. Wasserman.
Traditional e-textbooks were created much like their print counterparts with one or few co-authors and a slow, laborious production process. The CuboCube software created by Puya Seid-Karbasi, a former computer science student with Dr. Wasserman’s research team, is designed for e-textbooks with content structured into chapters tailored for student learning. CuboCube is a free, web-based platform that’s easy to use – much like Wikipedia, it allows users to set up a free account, login, create and edit work. It allows group collaboration to rapidly create an e-textbook that’s well suited for keeping up with the fast pace of new knowledge.
Developing the cancer genetics e-textbook took three years. First, Seid-Karbasi created CuboCube, which provided a structure for student writing. Then, Dr. Wasserman’s fourth-year Medical Genetics undergraduate students wrote textbook chapters for course assignments. The following year, students revised the work and created new chapters. Students in the project’s final year continued to improve chapters and added supplementary materials.
“When we first started this project, all the students were required to buy traditional textbooks,” says Dr. Wasserman. “Now that’s optional as the e-textbook is available to them.”
Dr. Wasserman hopes the project will expand to other departments and faculties, both at UBC and internationally.
“We’re excited to see other classes develop knowledge tools using this open-access platform,” says Dr. Wasserman. “Our system is not specific to genetics or the sciences – it will allow any one sharing chapter-structured materials to do so. We’re hoping other classes will work on the book with our class to make it even better.”
A scientific paper about the project is published online March 7, 2017 in the open-access journal PLOS Biology. The paper’s first author, Seid-Karbasi, is now a software engineer with Amazon in Seattle.
The project was funded by the Teaching and Learning Enhancement Fund (TLEF) at UBC, which supports innovative and effective educational enhancements. TLEF is financed entirely by a portion of the student tuition paid to UBC Vancouver.