Wake Forest University with Odigia Higher Education Tech Innovation

Primary Contact Name: 
Dan Johnson
Funding Framework: 
Primary Challenge Area: 
Deeper Learning
Supplemental Resources
Wake Forest University BioBook video

Students learn and understand more when they have specific learning goals for reading, can frequently test their understanding in meaningful ways, can anchor new information to what they already know and can choose their learning path. BioBook is the first eText that helps students do all of this. BioBook is cloud-based and accessible from any device with an HTML5-compliant browser. Its node-based framework lets teachers choose and update what content, multimedia, and self-assessments their students experience. This project is evaluating BioBook’s impact at a four-year private university, a small women’s college, a historical black state university, and a community college.

The goal of our innovation is to increase the number of students who successfully complete college-level biology. There is significant evidence showing biology’s oversized impact on college completion rates. Yet nearly 30 percent of students fail the course their first time through. This outcome needs to improve, and the team from Wake Forest University and Odigia is proving that it can with BioBook.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 5 percent of all bachelor’s degrees in 2009 were in biology, and 7.5 percent in health professions and clinical science. Both majors require students pass general biology. By a conservative estimate, 10 percent of the remaining student population takes general biology to fulfill general science education requirements. This means that roughly 1 in 4 students must take general biology, or roughly 437,500 of the 1.75 million students that graduate annually.

BioBook is an interactive teaching and learning environment that combines proven technology with a research-based approach to instructional design. It is not just a replacement for a traditional biology textbook, nor simply another eText. BioBook adapts to a variety of learning styles and student audiences, guiding teaching and learning practices away from passive transmission of facts towards more active, student-centered learning with greater teacher and student engagement. Tools to engage and monitor students both in and outside of the classroom promote real-time data-driven decision making, helping teachers make learning easier and more personalized for their students.

BioBook’s simple, yet powerful node structure organizes content knowledge and provides a scaffold for assisting novice learners. Using this node structure, students approach topics according to their natural learning style. This enables them to explore different paths as they interact with new knowledge rather than following the order dictated by textbook authors. BioBook also teaches students how to learn using a study-test-study-test pattern that can produce greater learning gains in nearly every topic area.

With the BioBook model, students and instructors can identify problems before failure occurs.

While it is critical to achieve better learning outcomes, that alone is not enough. Gaining widespread adoption and student impact requires reducing cost and increasing accessibility. BioBook uses Creative Commons-licensed open educational resources (OERs), open-access materials and open-source technologies to deliver a personalized and interactive learning experience at a fraction of the cost of traditional static textbooks and eTexts. It also removes the main technology hardware barrier for teachers and students. BioBook is accessible from any device with a modern browser, meaning most students and instructors have one or more compatible devices, and if not, they do not need to purchase the most recent generation of hardware to use it.

Students say that our work has helped them contextualize key themes and provided anytime-anywhere access to content. Specific quotes include:

  •  “The real-world connections help me study for the exam in a better way than I would think if I were just quizzing myself.”
  • “I think the smaller amounts of information help me to digest what feels like a foreign language.”
  • “I like that my textbook is really anywhere that I have an Internet connection.”
  • “The tools are easy to access. Diagrams are helpful in understanding mitosis and meiosis.”
  • “I enjoyed using BioBook and I used it quite often. I would love to see it when it is finished.”

Faculty and staff say that our work has helped them provide interactive learning experiences and helped students engage more deeply with content. The initial response from instructors has been very positive. Our early semester training sessions often doubled in planned length because instructors were enthusiastically suggesting course implementation ideas, additional content topics, and other tools. Specific quotes include:

  • “The students who used BioBook were more attentive, interactive, and engaged than the students who did not have access. BioBook stimulated the students' curiosity about Biology and helped the students understand concepts and retain information more easily.”
  • “It has supplied supplementary information to my students who have problems grasping difficult topics.
  • “Being able to see which concepts my students are missing in the fact and recall section helps me to know where to spend time teaching.”
  • “Qualitatively, I noticed that grades did not dip as badly as in previous years on the exam that covers the material presented in the pilot version of BioBook. In general the third exam (covering the cell cycle and genetics) has the lowest average of all the exams. This semester it was still low, but the class average was above that received on the first exam.”
  • “Some students understood the topics better and the additional reading was good for them.”
  • “I think it positively impacted my teaching, because it reinforced things that I went over in class.”

We know it’s working. The BioBook pilot consisted of just two weeks of material, yet 6 percent more students who used BioBook passed generally biology, and 8 percent more at-risk students passed versus controls. The Biological Concepts Inventory measures how well students understand key biological principles. For both at risk students and overall, those who used BioBook’s two-week pilot scored 11 percent higher than students who did not. CLASS-Bio compares students’ general understanding of biology to that of a practicing expert in the field. At the end of the semester, students who used the two-week BioBook pilot scored 6-15 percent better overall. In addition:

  • BioBook’s student confidence results in performing science learning- and application-related activities was higher for all 13 questions on the Biology Self-Efficacy Survey (BSES) survey.
  • 78 percent of students said that BioBook’s format makes it easier to track overall learning progress.
  • 67 percent of students say that BioBook’s format makes it easier to understand basic biology concepts.
  • 95 percent of students said that BioBook’s format makes it easier to see what they do not yet know, or need to review
  • More than 80 percent of student and instructor BioBook pilot users said they would use a full version of BioBook

In five years, we imagine that the Adapa Project, an open-source educational resource collaborative, will be offering BioBook as well as a host of additional innovative open-source courses and resources.            

Initial adoption targets for BioBook are to impact more than 50,000 students per year within 5 years, consisting of a minimum of 30,000 undergraduate biology students per year. In addition, BioBook will be modified for both high school and graduate level students. A conservative estimate of 20,000 additional students between these two levels will achieve our minimum goals.

However the vision for The Adapa Project is much larger. BioBook’s platform can be easily modified for use in alternate subject matter areas. There are already ongoing conversations for platform adoption into additional courses and specialties, meaning the platform could conservatively impact more than 100,000 students by the fifth year of this project.

So far, our most surprising development has been how hungry students and teachers are for an innovative approach to improving the general biology experience, and how much larger and broader the scale-up potential is than we had originally envisioned. For example:

  • Over 80 percent of instructors and students that participated in BioBook’s two-week pilot expressed a desire to use BioBook for a full semester.
  • Many students and teachers have asked to adopt BioBook immediately without waiting for full semester test results.
  • We have received a high level of interest in expanding the biology content for high school, advanced placement, and majors biology. Significant interest has also been expressed in developing content for additional subject matter areas.

We are looking for partners to help us:

  • Develop content for new open-source projects, with a particular interest in STEM, including anatomy and physiology, microbiology, chemistry and environmental science.
  • Create new open-source illustrations for specific topics that are unavailable in current public domain media repositories.
  • Expand our bank of biology assessment questions, particularly those that evaluate higher-order thinking skills.
  • Evaluate a completed, full-semester version of BioBook. We are especially interested in sites with large at-risk populations, who have high percentages of students who do not pass general biology, or who are not satisfied with how their students learn from current textbooks.
  • Develop a Spanish version of BioBook.


  • Winston-Salem State University
  • Guilford Technical Community College
  • Salem College

Principal Investigators: A. Daniel Johnson, Kristin Redington Bennett, Jed C. Macosko 

For more information about BioBook, visit the Adapa Project