Assessing Faculty Use of Digital Resources to Teach Undergraduate Ecology: Can ESA's EcoEd Digital Library Save the Day?


I. Introduction

The emergence of digital technologies has transformed the teaching and learning of ecology over the past 20 years (Brewer 2003, Wu et al. 2007). The Ecological Society of America has long been supportive of those efforts through a variety of initiatives. One initiative, started in 2001, was the establishment of a Digital Library (DL) to serve as a clearinghouse for the exchange of digital resources to advance ecology instruction, especially at the undergraduate level (Taylor et al. 2004, Mourad 2008a, b). Development of that resource, called EcoEd DL, was supported by a National Science Foundation grant. EcoEd DL can be found at 〈〉 In turn, EcoEd DL is part of the BioSciEdNet (BEN) collaborative overseen by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (Lundmark 2003).

Working with a steering committee composed of Society members, the ESA's Education and Diversity Programs Office built and began populating EcoEd DL over the past 7 years with unique and high-quality peer-reviewed resources. Despite those efforts, EcoEd DL's holdings remain small and underutilized. On that basis, one can ask whether any need exists for EcoEd DL? Indeed, one can ask whether undergraduate ecology faculty even use digital media in their teaching, which is an underlying impetus for the establishment of EcoEd DL? If so, do they simply use resources from textbook publishers, or identify resources from existing open-access websites such as Google?

II. Developing the survey

In spring 2009, ESA decided to launch a survey to guide the development of EcoEd DL. The survey was developed by the authors with four sections that gathered information about the background of users (and potential users), the courses they teach, the perception of their teaching resource needs, and their interaction with EcoEd DL. The survey consisted of 23 items. Three items were demographic, indicating whether the respondent was an ESA member, the category of institutional affiliation, and whether the respondent considered him/herself an ecologist. A series of four questions focused on teaching responsibilities, including the nature of courses taught and their audience. Four more questions addressed perceived challenges to teaching ecology, and how instructors use online and printed materials in addition to the textbook. The final series of questions dealt with respondents' experience using and contributing to EcoEd DL, the perceived value of the various features of EcoEd DL, and which potential changes to the resource would really be an enhancement.

The survey was launched on 7 April 2009 via the online Survey Monkey service and advertised to all 10,000 ESA members and participants of the Ecolog listserv (9103 subscribers). A special announcement was also made to the ESA Education Section (~400 ESA members) and the ESA Education listserv (~700 members). It closed on 13 April 2009.

III. Results

A) Respondents' background

During the one-week period in which the survey was active, 342 individuals responded. Not all respondents completed every question. Over 89% of the respondents were ESA members. Almost 60% were affiliated with an institution with a graduate program in ecology, and an additional 25% claimed affiliation with an institution lacking a graduate program in ecology (Table 1).

Table 1. Responses to question: Which of these describe the institution you are affiliated with (choose all that apply)?Thumbnail image of

Exactly 80% identified themselves as having basic or applied ecology as their primary area of expertise, while 12.1% replied that ecology was a secondary area. Regarding teaching responsibilities, 71.6% replied that they teach undergraduate courses. Of those faculty, 62.1% indicated that they teach both lower-division and upper-division courses, while 24.6% teach upper-division courses only. The respondents represented an almost even mix of individuals with <7 years and ≥7 years of teaching experience. The vast majority (75.8%) teach at least one course with significant ecological content.

B) Challenges in teaching ecology

The survey asked respondents who teach courses to identify challenges when teaching ecology, and presented them with a list of eight possible issues (Table 2). Respondents were able to choose multiple issues. The item selected most often (83.0%) indicated that they had difficulty “Finding ways to teach topics that actively engage students in lecture.” The item “Finding useful and engaging lab exercises” was selected by 70.7% of the respondents. Three items were each selected by slightly more than half of the respondents: “Keeping abreast with advances in ecological research that should be taught to students,” “Finding public domain images, figures, and tables that illustrate important ecological principles,” and “Finding data sets that deal with important ecological principles.” The three remaining items were each selected by less than half of the respondents and dealt with shortcomings of textbooks, including failure to cover key areas (36.2%), coverage that is occasionally out of date (29.7%), and coverage that is inaccurate in some places (12.7%).

Table 2. Responses to question: If you teach courses that have ecological content, which of the following do you see as a challenge? (select all that apply)Thumbnail image of

C) Use of ancillary materials in undergraduate ecology courses

The survey asked course instructors to indicate the frequency with which they utilize ecology-related materials from sources other than the textbook. Nearly all (99.1%) often or occasionally use resources that they personally produce (Table 3). Between 93% and 96% of faculty make use of resources obtained online, either through open-access or restricted-access sites. Almost 88% obtain resources from a colleague. Comparatively fewer faculty members rely on ancillary materials provided by their textbook publisher or another commercial publisher.

Table 3. Responses to question: Considering the breadth of ecology-related materials other than your textbook that you use in your courses (lab handouts, readings, presentation materials), please rate the frequency of your use of each item.Thumbnail image of

When asked for reasons for searching online for ancillary materials, faculty generally agreed with the five possibilities that were presented. Between 52% and 66% of the respondents agreed that they often search for resources because they are looking for real-world ecological issues to which students can relate, to supplement textbook coverage for one or more issues, and to locate materials on current research developments (Table 4). Fewer faculty were motivated to find information on topics completely missed by their textbook, or to find background information on teaching methods and strategies.

Table 4. Responses to question: If you search online for materials to teach ecology, indicate if you initiate your search for each of the following reasons.Thumbnail image of

When asked to identify the types of resources for which they search, nearly all faculty mentioned that they look for digital photos, as well as figures and tables from papers to use in slide shows (Table 5). Of all ecology instructors, 70–86% search at least occasionally for lab exercises, ideas for how to teach a particular concept, lecture activities, field activities, and simulations. Items less frequently searched include newer or more student-active versions of old labs.

Table 5. Responses to question: Please rate the frequency with which you have searched for the following ecology-related resources.Thumbnail image of

Based on their responses to the survey, faculty who teach at least one class with ecological content overwhelmingly use some digital media in their courses. The most commonly sought items include photographs to use in slide shows, and figures or tables from papers to use in slide shows or handouts. However, despite the availability of free digital resources on the Internet, faculty unequivocally pointed to lingering dissatisfaction over their ability to find materials that help them accomplish key pedagogic goals.

D) Faculty use of EcoEd Digital Library

Results of the survey verified our perceptions that EcoEd DL is far from achieving its goal of becoming the preeminent digital library in Ecology. The survey found that 65% of the respondents were not aware of EcoEd DL. A further 71.3% never searched any of EcoEd DL's holdings in their courses, and 78% never used any of the materials (Table 6).

Table 6. Responses to questions about frequency of searching and retrieving materials from EcoEd Digital Library.Thumbnail image of

Anticipating that most faculty are not familiar with EcoEd DL, the survey asked respondents to indicate their preference for potential activities that ESA could sponsor to improve usage of the resource. Fully 84% of all respondents identified online tutorials as being a preferred form of training (Table 7). Other potential strategies included virtual workshops (webinars) as well as half-day workshops and lunchtime (1-hour) sessions at ESA's Annual Meetings. Conversely, most respondents did not favor a full-day workshop at ESA's Annual Meetings.

Table 7. Responses to question: “How interested would you be in having the following resources available to make it easier for you to use digital teaching materials in your classes?”Thumbnail image of

The survey asked a series of questions as to whether particular features of EcoEd DL were viewed as being truly valuable. The fact that all items are peer reviewed for scientific accuracy was noted as being “very important” or “somewhat important” by 83.9% and 15.5% of all respondents, respectively (Table 8). Peer review for perceived value in undergraduate ecology instruction was also important, but less so (very important, 60.6%, somewhat important, 35.9%).

Table 8. Responses to questions about the importance of peer reviewThumbnail image of

Based on the responses to this part of the survey, faculty believe that the peer review component of EcoEd DL is important. Since information in other resource aggregators or search engines such as Google is not peer reviewed, one can argue that EcoEd DL can fill an important niche.

E) Improving EcoEd Digital Library

Thanks to changes in technology, particularly the advent of interactive Web 2.0 features, the ESA sought input on the value of several proposed enhancements to the system. Respondents especially wanted to see EcoEd DL include a feature that would allow users to provide feedback and comments on individual resources, and another allowing users to save and organize resources in personal folders (Table 9). They were also favorably inclined to use a feature that would allow them to recommend resources to colleagues via an e-mail link on the web site, another to rank resources according to a five-star system, and the development of a forum for discussing teaching strategies using the resources. Proposed enhancements that proved to have less appeal included an indicator showing resource-download counts, and the ability to share folders with others.

Table 9. Responses to question: “Which of these will be useful in facilitating your ability to submit your digital teaching materials to EcoEd DL?”Thumbnail image of
Table 10. Responses to question: “Which of these will be useful in facilitating your ability to submit your digital teaching materials to EcoEd DL?”Thumbnail image of

F) Contributing to EcoEd Digital Library

It can be argued the value of any library lies in its holdings. To allow EcoEd DL to achieve its goal of serving as the preeminent digital library in ecology, individuals holding digital resources of potential value to other ecology educators must be willing to share with others in need. The survey asked a series of questions to assess the perceptions of potential contributors.

First, the vast majority (97.1%) of respondents admitted to never having submitted any resources in the past.

A second question asked whether respondents have any form of digital resource that would be of value to others who teach ecology at the undergraduate level. Such resources might include photographs to use in slide shows, figures or tables from papers to use in slide shows or handouts, lab exercises, lecture activities, field activities, simulations. Approximately 60% of respondents indicated that they had such resources, and 92.4% indicated that they would be interested in submitting to EcoEd DL.

Respondents were asked about potential barriers to submitting. Over 87% cited a lack of time. Three other potential barriers: concern over loss of proprietary control, lack of institutional reward, and concern that resources are not of interest to others were each cited 20–27% of the time.

Respondents were then asked to select among seven proposed activities intended to increase the number of submissions. The most commonly selected included online tutorials and a PowerPoint slideshow with step-by-step instructions. Respondents also suggested that collaborations with other faculty or research scientists would be at least somewhat useful. Proposed brownbag workshops at ESA meetings and full-day workshops were viewed as being of less interest.

IV. Conclusions

The results of the April 2009 survey show that the vast majority of ecology educators use a wide variety of digital resources to enhance laboratory and lecture phases of their courses. They often obtain those resources online, either through open access or restricted sites. Many faculty also have resources to share with other instructors.

When created in 2001, the ESA's EcoDd Digital Library set out to serve as the preeminent online clearinghouse for undergraduate ecology education. It has yet to live up to that promise, largely due to delays in perfecting its user interface and resource submission structure. During the past two years, the ESA has devoted considerable effort to making several improvements to its infrastructure, in seeding its holdings with a variety of resources of interest, and in conducting meaningful outreach to potential users and contributors.

The survey indicates clearly that faculty rely on digital resources for teaching and quality; i.e., peer-reviewed resources are important to them. EcoEd DL, built with a peer review process both for accuracy of the science and pedagogical use, now has the potential to live up to its original promise. To achieve that potential, individuals having resources of value to ecology educators must now step forward and submit resources to build the library. Significantly, potential contributors are not limited to educators, but include those who conduct ecological research and ecological practitioners. Unfortunately, many of those individuals do not immediately perceive that their photos, data sets, models, and other items that reside on their computers are of value. Motivating that large subset of research ecologists and practitioners to contribute their digital resources will be necessary for EcoEd DL to build a truly worthwhile collection. With the rapid changes and advances in the ecological sciences, educators depend on the contributions of the research community to ensure that ecology education remains up to date, with leading quality resources on “real world ecological issues” that educators have difficulty finding.

Having now gone through a development period that lasted nearly a decade, EcoEd DL has the potential to address difficult issues in teaching ecology at the undergraduate level. The survey will serve as a helpful guide in the future development of EcoEd DL. First, EcoEd DL must maintain its focus on accumulating high-quality peer-reviewed resources. Second, we need a well-conceived and vigorous program to increase its holdings and reach out to potential users through such activities as professional development webinars, and address some of the perceived barriers. Third, we need a technology plan to move EcoEd DL into the Web 2.0 environment. This strategic combination will allow EcoEd DL to approach its full potential as the preeminent digital library to support and foster outstanding ecology education.