The Learning Lab Team recently sat down with the Better Book project team for its six-month project check-in. Better Book launched in summer of 2019 as one of Learning Lab’s inaugural projects. This project continuously improves an online interactive textbook for introductory statistics that the principal investigators and textbook authors, Jim Stigler and Ji Son, initially developed with a private grant. According to Stigler and Son, statistics is critical not only for gaining entry into STEM careers, but also for excelling in them. In fact, the duo argue that modern computational statistics is arguably more critical for future STEM careers than are traditional mathematics courses, and statistics may also be the most direct pathway for students who, from a psychological perspective, have been convinced that they can’t learn math. Based on learning science theories of how people develop deep understanding in complex domains, Better Book’s goal is not simply students’ course completion, but the development of flexible and transferable knowledge – in other words, deep understanding – in all students.
Jim Stigler, PI, Profesor of Psychology, UCLA
Jim – The Better Book project was one of the first projects that Learning Lab funded. You came in with a platform that you and your co-PI already developed. What’s been the biggest achievement to date for the Better Book project since receiving the Learning Lab grant? Have there been any big surprises, good or bad?
I think the biggest achievement so far is our adaptation to the world of COVID. We already were fortunate to have an online textbook, but the move to remote learning required us to up our game on the implementation side. For this, we made the move to build Jupyter Notebooks into our platform, and that has proven to be a game changer. Teachers use Jupyter to structure their remote classes. They also have risen to the occasion to develop their own notebooks and share them with others. All of this has led to a more rapid scale-up than we originally anticipated.
This curriculum is now attracting interest from K-12. Was that expected? What do you think is the opportunity there? And just how scalable is this project?
Because our materials are all online, scale-up is not a problem. The interest from K-12, though, was somewhat faster than we anticipated. With COVID, the acceptance of remote learning, the rapid rise of data science, and the interest in equity, I think the stars have aligned to finally make it possible to re-envision high school mathematics. Data science is, for the first time, being seen as an alternative pathway based on interests, not on ability. Our course is just as rigorous as pre-calculus, but goes in a very different direction. And we see this taking off everywhere.
Ji Son, PI, Professor of Psychology, Cal State LA
Ji – Your project is called the Better Book Project. We’ve talked about what that means exactly, and you’ve said it does NOT mean that your “book” (the online interactive statistics textbook) is better than everything else out there. So what does it mean?
Instead of thinking of “better” as an adjective, we think of “better” as a process — our better book approach is that we have a data-based means of making the book better. Even the best of designers, instructors, and researchers can only do the best they can. But we instantly find out so much about the limitations of our best efforts when testing these materials with real students in real campuses in the real messy world out there. Our better book approach creates a feedback loop to take those insights and iteratively improve the book and free materials for the next cohort of students and instructors to benefit from.
Your enthusiasm for this project is notable, and it seems to stem from the learning you and your co-PIs gain from the users of the book. What’s been one great piece of learning or an “Aha!” moment in the last year that’s come from your faculty community?
There have been many, both large and small, but one that sticks with me is that so many instructors have been somewhat surprised by how sophisticated their students can be when given the opportunity. Instructors at first often feel worried that their students won’t be able to rise to the challenge (“but you don’t understand… my students might not get this…”) but many of them look back with their students at how far they have come! They have learned technology (R, jupyter notebooks), statistical modeling, how to deal with huge sets of data. Students are even impressed with themselves! It reminds all of us that there is a lot of potential out there in our students.
Edouard Tchertchian, PI and Professor and Chair of Mathematics, LA Pierce College
Eddie – What’s been the value for community college faculty to join this project and pilot this new approach to teaching statistics?
Following the implementations of AB 705, many community college instructors statewide found themselves having to teach more and more statistics offerings. For some, this was a brand new experience. For others, it was having to teach a course they seldomly do. Due to the rapid growth of data science and statistics, more and more students have been exposed to the introductory stats course over a range of levels (starting from high school). As a math department chair at a community college, my goal was to improve our instructors’ knowledge of statistical concepts, their understanding of the GAISE/GAISE II reports, as well as stress the importance of using technology in such a course. The Better Book Project made all the sense in the world for this reason. Stressing the use of technology through R (and eventually Jupyter Notebooks) and focusing more on conceptual understanding vs. computation has changed the mentality of those who taught with the materials. Whether they continue to use them in the future or not, they have been exposed to a specific approach to teaching the material and now better understand what to focus on in class. For many, it was earth-shattering to teach this way as compared to the methods used with their traditional math stats book. For others, it is a whole new world into a subject they’re not too familiar with. In either case, they have seen something very different from the usual.
Are there any barriers for community colleges? If so, what are they?
One barrier is student technology. It wasn’t until Fall 2019 that we finally got WiFi in all classrooms at LA Pierce College. We also do not have access to a computer lab. Thus, some instructors have had to ask students to bring in laptops or other devices to connect to the book online. While having the book online through Canvas is definitely the way to go, technology needs are still an issue in many colleges. Not all students were able to bring a device that worked well with the book. Some utilize their phones, and the book did not display properly nor did the R code windows in the previous edition. I’m not sure how this is working with Jupyter Notebooks either since we’ve been largely remote for their implementation. The course is heavy on technology (for all the right reasons as mentioned above), but that requires access. Since we have gone remote, there haven’t been issues.
Karen Givvin, co-PI and Adjunct Professor of Psychology, UCLA
Karen, you’re in charge of the faculty study groups and the networked improvement community overall. Your community of faculty has grown quite a bit, even during the pandemic. How did you create the energy that has allowed the community to thrive and grow even in the pandemic?
When we began our work, pre-pandemic, nearly all of what we did was face to face. For instance, our first on-boarding events took the form of full- and half-day meetings on participants’ local campuses. That would have certainly limited our ability to scale. Our collective move to working remotely forced us to re-think instructor on-boarding and support. We now conduct 12-week study groups for which we meet for an hour a week and there are homework assignments in between. Spreading the work out over time is far better for learning, but wouldn’t have been manageable for us, face to face. Meeting over Zoom also means that instructors can learn to use the materials together, in real time, with colleagues from different institutions across the state. There’s a lot of cross-pollination of ideas within each study group cohort. We’re excited by the affordances of Zoom, both for its ability to expand our groups and for its impact on the work group members do.
What’s your advice to others who are trying to grow a similar community of engaged and energized faculty?
I think a large contributor to our success is that we’re filling a need. We’re helping faculty prepare to teach not just with materials that are new to them but with an approach that’s new to them. Many of our instructors have little to no experience coding in R, so before they teach it to their students, they want to become familiar with it themselves. The work we do in our study groups helps instructors experience the course as their students will. Later, when instructors are in classrooms of their own, they come to office hours to address the practical issues that come up in their classrooms. Our faculty community wasn’t developed for the sake of creating camaraderie in the work—though that clearly is a outcome—but rather to answer the demands of implementing a new curriculum. That need provides instructors with a reason to come and the practical ideas with which they leave give them a reason to return.
If you want to see a complete version of the online textbook, or just learn more about CourseKata and the Better Book Project, visit https://coursekata.org, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The book is free for students and instructors, and the project team always welcomes new faculty who want to use it!