Imagine going through four years of a professional school without ever buying a textbook. And not just any school - a complex dentistry program. A no-textbook curriculum is in place at New York University's dental school and four other dental programs across the United States.
In the New York University School of Dentistry's two adjoining buildings in midtown Manhattan, dental students still carry book bags. Inside are laptop computers, and perhaps snacks and bottled water, but no textbooks, because none are used by the school.
Van Afes, director of the NYU dental library, who helped train students in this new way of studying, says the entire four years' curriculum - more than 250 textbooks' worth of information - are encoded into one digital versatile disc, or DVD. This single disc is called The Vital Book.
Mr. Afes said, "In this day and age, with the explosion of information, especially in the health sciences, it's almost impossible for students to learn the way that they used to learn. Students really cannot memorize information and facts. And this involves the computer, because you really have to have something that helps you manipulate and manage all the information that's out there. They're able to see information across the entire four years of the curriculum, instead of just focusing on their own little course that they're taking at that point."
Van Afes said some New York University dental students find it hard to get used to reading a textbook on a computer screen. So they come into his library to look up material in the paper textbooks as well. And those who have trouble digesting all that flashes past on their computer screens can print-out any page in The Vital Book onto a hard copy.
"The Vital Book allows you to create books within books. So say that students are studying for a biochemistry exam. They can cut and paste [electronically], maybe from two or three different textbooks, and create their own textbooks. It's like you used to do with a paper textbook, where you'd highlight the information. The other thing that students can do is that they can open up a little Word document like writing in the margins of a real book. What we teach them as part of our introductory course is key words when they take their notes. If it's something in biochemistry, to use the word 'biochemistry' at the head of their notes. Then when they go back and they search under 'biochemistry,' their notes will come up as well as the text."
Students like NYU first-year dental student Daniel Kang, a Brazilian native of Korean ancestry, can reorganize information in The Vital Book any way they wish, to study for tests or to write reports. "I've actually been studying at a local coffee shop," he said, "and random people have just come up to me and been amazed that I'm looking at a computer, and I'm actually studying. There are diagrams in there that I'm clicking back and forth to in different windows. And when I told them I'm a dental student, they were shocked that dentistry was being taught in a way that you can just literally get it out, all fifty books or hundreds of books, in one DVD. It's just a great reference tool. The only disadvantage is you can't stare at the computer screen all day long. But, you can't study at the computer all day long anyway. You've got to take some study breaks."
In most college programs, if you lose a textbook, you can buy or borrow another one. Misplacing your Vital Book, or having its program "crash," is a more serious matter. It means losing an entire curriculum.
Daniel Kang says that when this happens, copies of The Vital Book can be borrowed from the NYU dental library. And the company that provides the program, Vital Source Technologies in Raleigh, North Carolina, offers a 24-hour help line if a student's Vital Book develops bugs.
Vital Source Technologies' president, Frank Daniels, says the company also provides similar curricula on DVD and other computer formats in human and veterinary medicine, religion, business, chemistry, and engineering. Mr. Daniels said, "If you think of all the information that you deal with on a daily basis, it's a hodgepodge of stuff, and you don't know where things are. And we create a structure of information so that it's very easy to relate information to you. In our computerized textbooks, you can show questions, you can show answers. You can just show pictures. You can show the text that describes the pictures. It gives a lot of information to everybody but enables them to see it the way they want to see it."
NYU students and other graduate students in colleges across America that use The Vital Book do still have to pay for their textbooks in this DVD format. But for their money, they're getting, not just the textbooks, but also instructional videos and links to related Internet sites - all on a single disc no bigger than a music album.