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Online Textbook Finds a Global Audience

A University of Wisconsin-Madison bacteriology professor has created a web-based textbook from 30 years” worth of lecture notes, making a wealth of information-written in an easy-to-understand style-about everything from anthrax to whooping cough available for students, teachers, scientists and information seekers from around the world.

Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology began about two years ago, says Ken Todar, a bacteriology professor in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, and it has found a receptive audience even beyond the classroom setting for which he first intended it.

“Most of the people who comment on the book are appreciative for making it readable to the general public,” Todar explains, “but it”s just as readable to students and scientists, and I get citations and good reviews from them as well.” Todar estimates that he gets ten to fifteen emails each day from readers.

And while a recent review in the journal Science boosted traffic to the site, Todar’s articles have had a wide audience ever since 1997, when he started posting them online as class notes. For example, prior to the 2001 anthrax mail scare, his article was one of the few available on the topic, so it came up first in internet searches. “All of a sudden I started to get calls from places like the New York Times and CNN and NBC wanting to talk to an anthrax expert,” he recalls. “I referred them elsewhere, but it showed there”s a demand from the public for this type of information.”

Todar says that when he decided to compile his articles into a book he expected college and advanced high school students and their teachers would find it the most useful. “Many articles appear as modules, so it’s easy to learn about specific topics, especially subjects that fit into current events,” he says.

He hears from grateful students regularly. Recently, a nursing student from New York wrote that both she and her 7th-grade daughter use the book to help with schoolwork. Another student in Australia emailed to thank him for writing “in totally understandable English.”

These students are benefiting from Todar’s 30 years of teaching experience, most of it at the UW-Madison. “Part of my success as a teacher-and my articles reflect this-is that I try to help students separate what”s important from what”s trivial,” he says.

However, Todar has found that his book has a much wider audience than he originally anticipated. In addition to students and teachers, he has heard from scientists, doctors, patients, caregivers, reporters, farmers and others from around the world who read his book.

For example, recently a horse breeder in Iowa emailed to say that she used Todar’s book to research a bacterium that she suspected killed all of her foals this year, and a National Geographic reporter wrote looking for information on cholera. Todar was able to provide some additional information and point them both in the right direction for more help.

One of the benefits of having the book online, rather than printed, is that he can update the book as science advances, Todar says. And while his online book lacks the formal editorial process that a printed textbook undergoes, Todar says that his work benefits from another form of peer review. “If people, including other scientists, read an article and they find a mistake, or they think there”s another way I should say something, they”ll write and let me know,” he says. “I”m trying to make the textbook as accurate and correct as I can, so I welcome comments.”

The web address for Todar’s book is: www.textbookofbacteriology.net.