How Moving From Print to Digital Lab Materials Maximized Quality
spent on each Bio I and II lab manual in Top Hat
students enrolled per lab section every semester
sections of Bio I and II managed per year
Low-cost learning materials were light on the quality and interactivity needed for STEM labs
Affordability can often come at the cost of quality. As Christine Kelly quickly learned, that holds especially true when it comes to course materials. Kelly, a professor and Assistant Chair of the Department of Biology and Chemistry at County College of Morris, knew she wanted to reduce financial barriers where possible. “A lot of our students are commuters and working part-time. They don’t want to spend all of their hard-earned money on textbooks,” she says.
Kelly initially gravitated towards a low-cost lab manual to use across her biology courses. “They were $10, but they weren’t in color—critical for labs—and on top of that, they used a cookie cutter approach to curriculum,” Kelly says. As someone who oversees up to five Biology I and two Biology II sections per semester, Kelly was determined to find a more relevant, student-friendly lab solution that provided the flexibility and empowerment traditional materials couldn’t.
When Kelly came across Morton Publishing Company, a press specializing in bespoke educational content for the sciences, she was immediately drawn in. “Customization was a huge deal for us. We didn’t want to settle for labs already in a book. We wanted to be able to add and remove items as we pleased, and Morton allowed that to happen,” she says. When Top Hat acquired Morton in 2021, Kelly was presented with another exciting opportunity to not only update the material within her existing manual, but to stabilize fees by switching from print to digital delivery.
Redesigning an immersive, high-quality and affordable lab manual with Top Hat
The seamless transition from a printed Morton manual to a digital, Top Hat Interactive eText, was a game changer for Kelly and her team of Biology instructors. “Top Hat’s custom publishing team began converting the existing manual into a PDF in late 2021. I left comments on what labs to remove and added in new labs or activities. I made edits directly on my iPad and the team implemented everything incredibly quickly, in time for the fall 2022 semester,” Kelly says. She opted for a hybrid format, where students can access a Top Hat Interactive eText combined with a supplemental print offering available via their school’s bookstore.
→ Before lab: Students review a Chapter Introduction found within the custom Top Hat Interactive eText, which lets them review graphics and identify areas of confusion before coming to lab.
→ During lab: Students complete a hard-copy worksheet—their preferred format during dissections and hands-on experiments—with questions related to the activity ahead. “Some students really like having paper copies. Not everyone will have access to a tablet: it’s why we decided the hybrid model was the best for our students,” Kelly says.
→ After lab: Students are given the chance to complete additional study questions accessible via their Top Hat Interactive eText, keeping them engaged outside of class.
During the 2022–2023 academic year, Kelly gathered feedback from instructors on questions, problems, and areas of confusion observed during labs. Using Top Hat’s editing tools, she now feels empowered to provide a more comprehensive and fulsome learning experience. “The training I received from Top Hat was great. I was given tutorials on how to edit my master shell. I now fix procedures, address student mistakes and make iterations before publishing for the new semester,” she says.
“The training I received from Top Hat was great. I was given tutorials on how to edit my master shell. I now fix procedures, address student mistakes and make iterations before publishing for the new semester.”
Driving down costs while driving up customization
After switching to Top Hat’s custom lab solutions, Kelly was finally able to strike a balance between affordability and in-depth learning materials. Students are no longer required to pay upwards of $120 for a traditional manual on the market. They now pay an affordable fee of $55 per Top Hat Interactive eText, where the curriculum is now divided for Bio I and II.
In the future, Kelly hopes to facilitate mandatory post-lab assessments in Top Hat as well. “My long-term goal is to convert all open-ended questions found in the original manual into multiple choice or true and false questions that can be automatically graded in Top Hat.” For now, she can rejoice knowing that she’s walked away with affordable—yet highly customizable and interactive—lab materials to delight every student.