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Open medical textbook series offers curriculum flexibility for faculty and cost savings for students

By eLearning Inside
March 07, 2022

March 7, 2022 — Renée LeClair, Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine associate professor, remembered her frustration when she designed an integrated course for first-year medical students and couldn’t find a single textbook or resource to support the classroom experience she envisioned. With a VIVA Open Course Grant, University Libraries Open Education Initiative, LibreTexts, and Virginia Tech Publishing, she and her colleague Andrew Binks teamed up to author their own.

Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine and Virginia Tech Publishing, through Virginia Tech’s Open Education Initiative housed in the University Libraries, are publishing a five-volume textbook series for pre-clinical medical students that is adaptable and freely downloadable through Pressbooks and LibreTexts. This series aligns with the United States Medical Licensing Examination and is based on faculty experience and peer review. The first in the series, “Cell Biology, Genetics, and Biochemistry for Pre-Clinical Students” by LeClair, covers foundational knowledge of genetics, cell biology, and biochemistry.


The first textbook in the series is now available through Virginia Tech Publishing and LibreTexts.

The second in the series, also authored by LeClair, “Neuroscience for Pre-Clinical Students”, covers neuroenergetics, neurotransmitters, neuropeptides, and selected amino acid metabolism and degradation. LeClair designed this text for students already introduced to fundamental concepts of biology and chemistry essential to understanding the textbook’s content.

Three more texts in the series, authored by Andrew Binks, an associate professor at Virginia Tech School of Medicine, are currently in various publication stages. “Cardiovascular Pathophysiology for Pre-Clinical Students,” “Pulmonary Pathophysiology for Pre-Clinical Students,” and “Pulmonary Physiology for Pre-Clinical Students” are scheduled for publication in 2022.

Binks said now is a perfect time for the series.

“Medical education had traditionally included independent basic science courses, each covering a different discipline, such as biochemistry or physiology, and each discipline had its own thick and expensive textbook,” said Binks. “There is now a transition to integrate the disciplines in the classroom to reflect how they are integrated and interdependent in the human body and in medicine. The opportunity to write our own books gave us the flexibility to support an increasingly integrated medical curriculum with short, movable chapters that could be quickly rearranged to suit the course restructuring.”

“The topics chosen here are predominant content areas in the course I currently organize and topics I have delivered in the past,” said LeClair. “There were also some great open educational resources to reference from Openstax that made some sections easier to write.”

The textbooks are adaptable to a professor’s teaching style because they are openly published under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 Creative Commons license. This permits anyone with access to the internet download to remix, adapt, and build upon the text in a non-commercial way. They can do this as long as they credit the authors and license their new creation under identical copyright terms.

“While some textbooks are akin to encyclopedias, containing every possible concept at expert levels, this series is purposeful,” said Anita Walz, University Libraries’ assistant director for open education and scholarly communication.

“It is highly focused and relevant to selected courses taken during the first few years of medical school. Students using the texts are not expected to become biochemists or cell biologists but are being trained as physicians. A larger percentage of these focused texts are used by students instead of a smaller percentage of the many expensive books previously required for these courses.”

Binks said they’ve always envisioned their books having a global reach and wrote them with that in mind.

“Although there is no standardized medical curriculum, the topics we teach are common and critical elements to all medical curricula, so we’ve made our books highly transferable so they can be used at other medical schools with different curricular structures,” said Binks. “Our intention was for any school, with limited access to resources, to freely use our books to support pre-clinical education of their students.”

“We have had several schools reach out for adoption and at least one online program is adopting the text,” said LeClair. “Given the cost of traditional materials, these books are great options that provide high-quality materials at no cost.”

As medical education evolves, the textbooks’ format allows for continual refinement.

Binks and LeClair encourage faculty to utilize and create open educational resources for their classes. They even published a 12-tips article about producing an engaging resource for students.

“Starting a book can be a daunting process, but classroom materials or preparation materials that faculty have already developed can form the first steps,” said Binks. “Beyond content though, it’s important to decide how you want the books to be used by your students and what might be useful for other medical educators. The adaptability and transferability were important to us, as was the need to support the growing use of active learning.”

With the help of Walz, and Kindred Grey, graphic designer and open educational resources assistant, this textbook series graduated from an idea to reality.

“Aspects of publishing such as back matter, front matter, press releases, formatting, page numbering, page layout, peer review coordination, copyediting — and the list goes on — that are essential to the process are details they kept track of and saw through,” said LeClair. “This is in addition to making sure all the Creative Commons licensing and referencing was accurate and accounted for.

“Don’t do this alone,” said LeClair. “When I started this project, I thought this was something content experts could do individually, but in working with our current team I have a better understanding of the publishing process.”

“Working with the Open Education Initiative and Virginia Tech Publishing has been a phenomenal experience,” said Binks. “The enthusiasm and experience of its team members were critical to the whole process and producing one textbook, never mind five, is difficult to imagine without their help.”

Featured image: Virginia Tech.