– Contributed by Ann Brown
In February 2021, The University Libraries’ Virginia Tech Publishing and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE) published “Introduction to Biosystems Engineering” an open textbook for university-level introductory courses in biosystems engineering.
Written by an international team of authors, this is the first open textbook published as part of the University Libraries’ membership in the Open Education Network Publishing Cooperative. It also marks the first time that Virginia Tech Publishing has partnered with an international professional association to publish an open textbook.
For many college students, the cost of textbooks can be an insurmountable challenge. Thanks to the open textbook movement, which focuses on the creation and use of books that are openly licensed, free, and editable, students are increasingly able to obtain high-quality educational resources at no cost. The University Libraries at Virginia Tech is committed to the open education movement and is engaged in creating and promoting open textbooks and other open educational resources with Virginia Tech faculty authors. Since 2016, the library and Virginia Tech Publishing have published 10 open textbooks.
“Course materials have become quite expensive. Many students are already priced out of being able to afford to purchase and retain certain course materials and have to navigate decisions regarding whether or not they will even try to access course material. This directly affects student learning” said Anita Walz, University Libraries’ assistant director for open education and scholarly communication librarian. “Also, open educational resources are customizable, so instructors have permission to add additional worked examples or change the sequence of a text to better fit the course.”
“Introduction to Biosystems Engineering” is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license (CC BY) and is available both in print and online. The online version is freely downloadable either as a complete work or as stand-alone chapters. In addition, a parallel resource in development, The Biosystems Engineering Digital Library (BEDL), will provide more teaching and learning resources instructors can use in the classroom.
ASABE Director of Publications Joseph C. Walker said “Introduction to Biosystems Engineering will help define the profession and support the organization’s goal of raising the global prominence of the agricultural and biological engineering profession.”
He said it was important for his organization to make this book freely available through open publishing.
“Making the text freely available will provide savings to the students and ensure wider usage, including in non-U.S. countries. With a broad user-base, open access, and ongoing development, the text will stay relevant to the profession and be widely used,” said Walker. “We look forward to the textbook possibly spurring other related projects and advancing the field of study.”
ASABE President (2019-20) Sue Nokes emphasized that this text “is not a traditional, static object, but a living digital resource to be expanded by educators, researchers, and practitioners with additional topics and developments in this vibrant subject. We look forward to new chapters from biosystems engineers around the world to increase the breadth and depth of coverage.”
ASABE past-president Mary Leigh Wolfe, Virginia Tech professor and former head of Virginia Tech’s Biological Systems Engineering department, was one of the project’s initiators. She served as one of the four editors of the text along with Nick Holden and Enda Cummins, professors of biosystems and food engineering at University College Dublin, Ireland, and Jactone Ogejo, Virginia Tech associate professor of biological systems engineering. The four editors share a vision of open access and internalization of their discipline. ASABE and Virginia Tech Publishing have brought that vision to fruition. Wolfe said this book is important because of its global perspective.
“Having authors from around the world helps reinforce the relevance and global impact of our discipline,” said Wolfe. “It is important for students to recognize both the differences and similarities of the focus areas of our discipline around the world.”
Holden said he and his fellow textbook editors worked with chapter authors to ensure a global focus throughout the book.
“Experts always like to share their knowledge so there is a temptation to write about too much, in their specific context, and at too advanced a level,” said Holden. “Our biggest challenge was to reign in this exuberance to make each chapter accessible to a beginner. It has worked really well and will continue to as the content evolves with time. We are already working on new chapters.”
The textbook is divided into six sections aligned with technical communities within biosystems engineering: energy systems; information technology, sensors, and control systems; machinery systems; natural resources and environmental systems; plant, animal, and facility systems; and processing systems. Within the sections, chapters focus on topics that can be covered in one week of class and include learning outcomes, key concepts, applications of concepts, and worked examples.
“I’m particularly proud of the planned structure of each chapter. I hope others can take from this model,” said Holden. “I also hope that the book introduces more biosystems engineers to the idea of open textbooks, as I do not think the idea is prevalent in the community.”
Cummins and Ogejo also emphasized the importance of making the textbook freely available.
“Education should have no bounds, including costs,” said Cummins. “An open textbook will ensure dissemination and equal opportunities for all interested parties to learn from this resource.”
“Access is key,” said Ogejo. “The availability and access to the internet globally to do business (commerce, trade, etc.) is on the rise. Leveraging these experiences to provide access to education materials for college students will provide a lot of benefit, especially to the economically disadvantaged communities.”
Wolfe is also passionate about providing current publications to all people.
“Cost prevents many people from having access to current publications. Instead they often receive outdated materials,” said Wolfe. “I hope that biosystems engineering programs and students around the world will download individual chapters and the book and find that it is helpful to them. I hope others in education will see that free resources are used widely and they help with providing equitable education for students in all parts of the world and within all programs.”
This is only the beginning. The editors see “Introduction to Biosystems Engineering” as a dynamic textbook that will grow and evolve over the next five years while simultaneously extending its global impact.
“In five years’ time, I would like to see two things happening. Firstly, I would like to see another two volumes, 50 additional chapters, published and freely available online. This will make the resource hugely valuable for educators around the world,” said Holden. “Secondly, I would like to see topic-specific textbooks being written using the same structured approach. I think it will work very well for both edited compilations and authored textbooks, as it helps organize thinking and makes learning much easier.”
“I hope to be able to say that the chapters are being used in programs around the world, as evidenced by download statistics and testimonials by users,” said Wolfe, “and that new chapters have been added continuously since the beginning.”
Note from the Managing Editor: Instructors evaluating, adopting, or customizing this book are asked to self-report their use on this form. This helps the editorial team to better understand the impact of the book.