Penn State professor Jacob Moore talks to two students in a lab.

Mont Alto professor maps the future of textbooks

Cross-campus project creates digital engineering textbook

By: Rachel Garman

For as long as there has been education, there have been textbooks in one form or another. The ancient Greeks had clay tablets and scrolls, and the creation of the printing press in the mid-15th century paved the way for the modern, bound textbooks used in classrooms today.

Now, Jacob Moore, an assistant professor of engineering at Penn State Mont Alto and recipient of the 2016 Faculty Scholar Award, is making his own contribution to the evolution of the medium.

Moore’s project, the Adaptive Map Digital Textbook, is an online engineering textbook with a twist: Rather than using a traditional table of contents, the book is structured around a concept map, a visual representation of multiple topics and the relationships among them plotted as points (or nodes) on a map.

In a concept map, each topic is represented by a circle or square, which is connected to other topics by lines representing relationships. For example, a concept map on weather might contain a point labeled “clouds,” which is connected by lines to separate points representing specific types of clouds.

While it’s widely accepted that concept maps help students visualize and organize ideas, Moore says most researchers only focus on the maps as a study or review tool rather than as a way to teach information. 

“A lot of people focus on students making concept maps at the end of semester to review what they know,” Moore said. “But another way you can use them is as a guide to help students fit smaller topics into the big picture of the course.”

This past fall, Moore used the Adaptive Map Digital Textbook as the primary course resource for his engineering statics class — a fundamental course for all engineering students.

Each course topic has its own point on the interactive map with lines showing students how different concepts are connected to one another. For example, the map point representing “Newton’s Third Law” is related to the concept of “frames and machines,” which is then connected to “structures,” “two force members” and so on. 

When a student clicks on any point on the map, they’re redirected to that topic’s content page, complete with a host of additional multimedia resources, including video lectures, walkthroughs of example problems and diagrams.

“Multimedia is a great way to reinforce concepts and review lectures,” said Menelik Young, a junior studying mechanical engineering at Penn State Harrisburg and one of the programmers of the project. “I think being able to access lectures in other formats really helps students recall and prepare for exams.”
    
In addition to providing students with visual course content, the digital textbook also lowers the cost barriers that many students face when purchasing textbooks.
    
“It's not uncommon to see students skip buying textbooks just because they don't have the money, or they split the cost with a roommate and they have to pass it back and forth all the time,” Moore said. “If you remove those cost barriers, everyone will have better access to these tools. With the Adaptive Map Digital Textbook, as long as students have access to a computer, they have their textbook.”

As a student, Young agrees that accessible course content is a growing need for college students in the digital age.

“I’ve always performed better when I had access to the electronic forms of my textbook,” Young said. “I'm always on the go and commuting here and there, so being able to access my textbook from my smartphone or tablet and keep track of where I'm at with my assignments has always been helpful.” 

To ensure the tool is accessible on all devices, Young is currently “porting” the Adaptive Map software from Java to JavaScript and HTML, meaning he’s translating the code from an older programming language to a newer, more accessible one.
     
“Porting the Adaptive Map tool over to JavaScript really opens up the amount of devices we'll be able to program for, regardless of whether it's an iPhone, an Android or any computer or tablet,” Young said. 

In addition to being accessible on all devices, the digital textbook can also be used as an open educational resource by students and professors across the globe, according to Moore.

“I'm trying to keep everything — all the code and content — open source and under a Creative Commons Noncommercial License,” Moore said. “I want it to be something that other people can use and modify.”

For both Young and Moore, this shared passion for accessible education is a driving force behind the Adaptive Map Digital Textbook project. 

“I think technology is facilitating and allowing education to become more accessible than it's been in the past,” Young said. “Hopefully, this project will open up opportunities for a broader audience to gain access to the quality education Penn State provides.”

For more IT stories at Penn State, visit news.it.psu.edu