Evolution of Higher Education Course Materials

March 22, 2021

Health science is a complex field, and the process of equipping students to head out into the world and practice in related fields is equally complex. 


Before we get into the details of health science curricula and how it has changed in the last few centuries, though, let’s clear a few things up. 


What are Health Sciences?

The term “health science” refers to a set of disciplines related to delivering healthcare by way of applying science, engineering, technology, and math. Put more simply, health science is the field in which information from science is practically applied to humans or animals for the benefit of their health. 


Students who pursue education in the health sciences typically enter a program that provides them with a common base of knowledge through a variety of courses. Their initial slate of classes may include offerings such as: 

  • An introduction to human nutrition course
  • A medical terminology course
  • A survey of human disease course 
  • A sports nutrition course
  • A personal and community health course
  • Anatomy and physiology courses 


As students broaden their knowledge of health sciences, they may choose to pursue a specialty. Some popular specialties in this field include: 

  • Pharmacy Technology 
  • Occupational Therapy
  • Epidemiology
  • Physical Therapy
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Medical Laboratory Technology
  • Healthcare Communications
  • Healthcare Administration 


Pursuing a health sciences education leads students toward a meaningful, lucrative career path. The quality of education students receive, however, is dependent upon several factors. One factor is the curriculum used.


What Qualifies as a Curriculum?

Curriculum is a broad term referring to a sequence of planned and standards-based experiences in which students become proficient in specific content and applied learning skills. A curriculum is meant to guide educators toward topics that are indispensable for both teaching and learning in order to provide a quality education for every student. 


Each course within health sciences education is organized according to specific curricula that include the following intentional elements:

  • Goals 
    • The intended benchmarks for teaching and learning the material
  • Methods 
  • The approaches taken by instructors to engage students in meaningful learning
  • Materials 
  • The tools and resources selected in order to achieve the curriculum’s goals while acknowledging student interest, as well as factors such as cultural diversity 
  • Assessment 
  • The process of gauging a student’s retention of and ability to apply the course’s material 


How Have Curricula Evolved in Health Sciences Education?

The ways in which the goals, methods, materials, and assessment of curricula are implemented are not stagnant. Rather — as is the case with any other facet of higher education — these elements evolve over time. 


Perhaps the most obvious changes come with technological advances. However, the demographic shift in the health sciences field holds just as much sway over curricula. As the ages, genders, and ethnicities of both students and health practitioners broaden, content should also expand. Higher education has also witnessed a gradual shift away from teacher-centered pedagogy and towards a constructivist, student-centered version. 


Although there are other ways higher education has evolved over time, this article will focus on a specific field and a specific aspect of curricula: health sciences and course materials.


To get started, let’s take a brief look at the history of the evolution of higher education course materials. 


1. Apprenticeships 

In 18th and 19th century America, the primary mode of what we now consider higher education was apprenticeships. In this system, apprentices completed training with experts in their chosen field. As the four elements of curricula were significantly less defined, this system centered around hands-on, on-the-job experience. 


Two common vocations of this period included blacksmithing and textile production. Apprenticeships in the field of health sciences also existed during this era. Historical accounts outline how it took over 150 years for health practitioners to adjust their training materials to the American landscape. Early settlers who trained in the health sciences relied upon materials with a staunchly European perspective, which proved less effective for treating individuals in this new land.


At the tail end of the colonial period, however, uniquely American approaches to medical education began to surface. One shining example is the founding of Harvard Medical School in 1782. From there, health sciences education, standardization, and curriculum development rapidly advanced. 


2. The Traditional Textbook

Although textbooks existed in colonial America, they were largely created for the purpose of moral and religious education, as opposed to health sciences. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that textbooks provided educational authority. Since then, textbooks have reigned supreme in higher education, serving as the bedrock of most curricula. 


To this day, textbooks are still in circulation and are integral to many health sciences courses. However, it is projected that there will soon be a swift decline in the use of physical textbooks. This is due to several factors — the foremost being cost. According to a study conducted by the University of Florida, the increasing cost of textbooks is having an adverse effect on student outcomes. Consider the following effects of textbook prices:

  • 30% of respondents said they have chosen not to purchase a textbook 
  • 41% said they have put off buying a textbook
  • 15% said they have lowered their course load or dropped a class because of textbook costs


Another factor is the increasing popularity and availability of online learning. Although virtual learning formats have existed for some time, the COVID-19 pandemic made the switch quicker and much more far-reaching. In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus on college campuses, the vast majority responded to shelter-in-place orders and lockdowns by transferring their courses into an online setting. 


The traditional practice of instructors assigning physical textbooks and expecting students to rent or purchase the materials on their own dime is being challenged now more than ever. 


3. E-textbooks 

In an attempt to address the issues caused by textbook costs, educators and publishing companies proposed digital textbooks — widely known as e-textbooks. Indiana University first pioneered the concept in 2009 when they bulk-ordered course materials from publishing companies in order to provide course textbooks in an electronic format. 


E-textbooks solved multiple problems. They:

  • Reduced the cost of course materials, which helped lessen the financial burden of receiving higher education 
  • Lessened the physical burden of hauling around heavy books, a task that proves especially difficult for disabled students
  • Did a better job of catering to online learning


That said, there were a few barriers that stood in the way of the widespread use of e-textbooks. One issue was availability. Although the library of e-textbooks is still growing, the market of print textbooks remains more comprehensive. 


The same University of Florida study reported that at the University of Central Florida bookstore, while 40% of required textbooks for all courses in the 2016-2017 academic year existed in a digital format as well as a physical one, digital materials accounted for only 3% of the total course material purchases that year. 


Another barrier was effectiveness. Because they are accessed in a different way, online resources must adhere to a different design than their physical counterparts. One example is that the e-textbooks must have straightforward, yet engaging navigation. However, the most commonly used e-textbooks are those that allow features such as highlighting or annotating. Simply scanning preexisting textbook pages so they could be accessed online largely proved ineffective, as the user experience and level of engagement isn’t the same. 


Lastly, even with lower-cost options, affordability of e-textbooks was and still is a concern. This barrier ushered in the next phase in the evolution of health sciences education materials. 


4. Open Educational Resources 

The movement towards affordable course materials in higher education eventually led to the creation of Open Education Resources, or OERs. These materials are openly licensed, which grants users permission to legally retain, revise, reuse, or redistribute them. Such content ranges from broad in scope to particular, and include any of the following: 

  • Curricula
  • Textbooks
  • Videos
  • Syllabi
  • Lecture Notes
  • Assessments


Although similar ideas and terms occupied the higher education space much earlier, the OpenCourseWare project executed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is widely credited for bringing OERs into the mainstream of higher education. According to a 2010 article in the New York Times, MIT announced in 2001 that it intended to put its entire course catalog online. 


The shocking move initiated a global effort called the Open Educational Resources Movement, as well an annual event called Open Ed, which is a meeting of researchers, academics, and administrators who want to implement OERs into their respective institutional spaces. 


Recent research shows promising results following the use of OERs, showing that students who use them are no worse in academic performance than those who utilize more traditional, costly materials. 


The trend is gaining ground now more than ever. Numerous institutions provide free access to thousands of open-licensed resources for online courses health science through their online library. The materials range from authoritative and nationally ranked content — such as peer-reviewed literature produced by the Association of American Medical Colleges — to course-specific content produced by professors.


Digital 3D Models 

As evidenced by the earlier mention of apprenticeships, experiential learning is integral to any form of education, and health sciences are no exception. In the past, obvious barriers stood in the way of this kind of teaching and learning. In the health sciences, for example, getting up close and personal with the human body in order to study anatomy and physiology had only been possible through the use of cadavers. That all changed with the introduction of 3D technology, which makes the inaccessible accessible. 


The most direct use of 3D technology is recreating objects and spaces that exist in the physical world in a virtual environment. In the health sciences, 3D models of human bodies and their inner workings are becoming some of the most effective learning tools. 


In a previous article published by CIP Courses, we detail the various ways in which interactive 3D anatomy experiences can improve athletic training education. However, the piece’s highlights are relevant to a wide range of online health science courses. For one, digital 3D content allows students to interact with the human body in a way that other anatomic presentations can’t match. As opposed to flat 2D diagrams, physical 3D models, or actual human bodies, digital 3D models show the complex systems of the human body while they’re still functioning. Moreover, they are:

  • Able to be manipulated
  • Infinitely reproducible
  • Highly customizable 


The article also outlines how interactive 3D models of anatomy help students:

  • Grasp musculoskeletal anatomy through curated 3D views
  • Get hands-on experience paired with detailed descriptive text 
  • Customize various combinations of blood supply and innervation
  • Visualize muscle function through rotatable animations of muscle movements
  • Identify pain and trigger points with 3D views 


For these reasons and more, health sciences instructors would do well to incorporate this technology into their course curricula. 


Where are Higher Education Course Materials Headed Next? 

As younger generations adjust to online learning and master its technological elements, they are sure to usher in advances that not only improve the quality of higher education, but also expand its reach. As a result, healthcare everywhere will reap the benefits. 


At Caduceus International Publishing, we lead technological advances by providing innovative, top-quality interactive health science curricula to colleges, universities, and institutions. Our courses go far beyond the traditional textbook by integrating engaging and innovative features, such as: 


Moreover, our award-winning materials are cost-effective, customizable, and easily accessible. We are invested in the health sciences and want to support students and instructors alike in their educational journey. 


The future of health science education is bright, and CIP is proud to be at the forefront.

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