John Bigbee

The interview series “Why We Choose Open: OER Stories” invites VCU community members to share why they use, adapt or create Open Educational Resources (OER) and what impact that work has on their students, teaching experiences, and/or career.

Faculty: John Bigbee, School of Medicine, Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology

Resource: Digital Histology, an interactive OER featuring labeled photographs of histological slides and diagrams. Available as an independent website and indexed in OER repositories such as OER Commons.

Funded by a 2018 Affordable Course Content Award
Estimated annual student savings: $38,250
Average number of VCU students impacted annually: 500

Briefly describe your project
Digital Histology is an interactive, online, openly licensed histology text and atlas that presents all the topics covered in professional, graduate and undergraduate histology courses. It offers many unique and distinctive features beyond statically-labeled atlases including:

  • On-demand, dynamic labeling.
  • Menu-driven navigation that reinforces broader concepts in histology.
  • Descriptive introductory text for each image as well additional descriptions for labeled structures.
  • Chapter and section overviews including over 75 original diagrams. 
  • Over 1000 high quality, high resolution histological images. 
  • Interactive quizzes with feedback.
  • An outline-style review text that contains hyperlinks to images in the main program.
  • Randomization of images, including hiding of labels for an additional self-assessment mode.
  • Ability to include hyperlinks to virtual microscopy slides.  
  • Cross-platform compatibility across devices and screen sizes.

We had a great team to create the project: 

  • John Bigbee, Ph.D. and Alice S. Pakurar, Ph.D.  (Coauthors) 
  • Kenneth Warren Foster, Ed.D. and Thomas W. Woodward, MS (Design Coordinators) 
  • Carole W. Christman, Ph.D. (Medical Illustrator)
  • Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology
  • Office of Faculty Affairs, VCU School of Medicine
  • ALT Lab of VCU

What motivated you to make the switch to open and affordable course content?
Historically, the concept of Digital Histology–a digital package of histology images and instructional text –was born out of necessity to overcome the decreasing time allotted to histology instruction in professional and graduate curricula. Our initial commercial publication agreement allowed us to provide Digital Histology to our students at no cost. However, the program was restricted to the VCU community. In order to reach a broader audience and retain control over our package, we terminated the contract with our commercial publisher and moved to an open source and openly licensed format. Importantly, this change meant that we were no longer restricted by the publisher’s demands and priorities. We are now free to update and modify the program as needed without waiting for the publisher’s approval or the publication of a new edition.   

Digital Histology now serves as a valuable resource since histology instruction has become prohibitively expensive for many colleges and universities due in large part to the cost of purchasing and maintaining collections of microscopes and slides. In addition, for those schools that do offer histology courses, resources that were available for self-assessment and review consist mostly of statically-labeled image collections with inconsistent image quality and explanatory descriptions. Importantly, these resources require that students incur additional costs. With its cross-platform compatibility across devices and screen sizes, Digital Histology is available to students at any time and in any location. Furthermore, since Digital Histology is available at no cost, we can be assured that all our students have the same high quality resource.

What was your experience creating OER material? How did it compare to what you were expecting?
The entire experience was very enjoyable and educational. We received outstanding support from the instructional development teams in the School of Medicine and the ALT Lab. I was consistently pleased with the creativity, inventiveness and commitment to our project. I have also been appreciative of the VCU Libraries and the Open Educational Resources Librarian for their support and promotion of our OER efforts.

How were students impacted by the new materials? What was their reaction?
Digital Histology allows students to plan their study times so as to best fit their schedules. The program particularly offers flexibility for online learners, as was clearly evident during the COVID-19 restrictions.

Feedback from both medical and graduate students includes: 

  • “[The] Digital Histology website is incredibly helpful for out of class review.” 
  • “I’m loving the Digital Histology website! It feels like it made one of my weaknesses into a strength overnight.” 
  • “The digital histology website is very clear and helpful for understanding the material.” 
  • “Digital Histology was a great tool and I appreciated the quizzes to give us an idea of how we would be tested.” 
  • “The whole Digital Histo website. It’s just amazing.” 
  • “The site is an incredible resource.” 
  • “Digital is an AMAZING website that should be emphasized more.” 
  • “The digital histology program facilitates my learning throughout the unit on both histology and physiology.” 
  • “Really enjoy using Digital Histo, invaluable (and fun) resource.” 
  • “As a visual learner, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to use the digital histology software.” 
  • “Digital histo is the best!”

How have you been impacted by your use of OER?
Having Digital Histology has been liberating in that we can be assured that all our students have this resource. Importantly, we know that all the students have the SAME resource and we can rely on that common experience in planning our classroom sessions. In the past, while we have recommended specific resources for the students, some do not have equal access to them, sometimes due to the cost of these resources. As an open resource, Digital Histology is available to all! 

The success of Digital Histology was in part responsible for my being honored within the School of Medicine as well as at national and local levels. Last Fall, I was awarded the Enrique Gerszten, M.D. Faculty Teaching Excellence Award which is the highest recognition of teaching at the School of Medicine. Also last Fall, I was recognized with the Alpha Omega Alpha Robert J. Glaser Distinguished Teacher Award by the Association of American Medical Colleges. In addition, I was featured in an article in Richmond Times Dispatch and was also profiled on the VCU website homepage.

The high visibility of Digital Histology has not only brought personal recognition, but also highlighted my department as well as my colleagues. Their efforts in creating instructional packages in gross anatomy and embryology have led to publications in medical education journals and awards at medical education symposia.  

Do you have any guidance for other faculty considering the switch to open and affordable course content?
The entire process was very rewarding and exhilarating as you get to realize your teaching creativity. It does take a lot of work and depending on the complexity of the project, and a dedicated team of contributors is critical for success. If the content is designed to be hosted on a website, it is important to look “down the road” toward the sustainability of the project. This includes, but is not limited to, the stability and bandwidth of the hosting service, ongoing technical assistance and financial support from the institution.

Learn more about OER in the VCU Community
Open Educational Resources (OER) are teaching and learning materials that are free to access online and shared with open licenses that allow for unrestricted use, retention, sharing and editing by faculty and students. OER can be any type of teaching or learning materials, including textbooks, images, videos, slide decks, assessments, syllabi, and whole courses. 

VCU Libraries’ Open and Affordable Course Content Initiative provides education on open education and textbook affordability and direct support for the adoption, customization and creation of open educational resources, including managing the Affordable Course Content Awards. To learn more or explore the possibility of using or creating OER, visit the initiative’s website or contact Open Educational Resources Librarian Jessica Kirschner at

Categories Faculty/Staff, OER Stories, Open Textbooks, Why We Choose Open