A simple idea for publishers to help students (and themselves)

OXFORD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08:  A student reads...
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I’m doing some research, if you can call it that, right now that involves looking at past editions of popular and/or influential calculus books to track the evolution of how certain concepts are developed and presented. I’ll have a lot to say on this if I ever get anywhere with it. But in the course of reading, I have been struck with how little some books change over the course of several editions. For example, the classic Stewart text has retained the exact wording and presentation in its section on concavity in every edition since the first, which was released in the mid-80’s. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with a particular way of doing things, if it works; but you have to ask yourself, does it really work? And if so, why are we now on the sixth edition of the book? I know that books need refreshing from time to time, but five times in 15 years?

Anyhow, it occurred to me that there’s something really simple that textbook companies could do that would both help out students who have a hard time affording textbooks (which is a lot of students) and give themselves an incentive not to update book editions for merely superficial reasons. That simple thing is: When a textbook undergoes a change in edition, post the old edition to the web as a free download. That could be a plain PDF, or it could be a  Kindle or iBooks version. Whatever the format, make it free, and make it easy to get.

This would be a win-win-win for publishers, authors, and students:

  • By charging the regular full price for the “premium” (= most up-to-date) edition of the book, the publisher wouldn’t experience any big changes in its revenue stream, provided (and this is a big “if”) the premium edition provides significant additional value over the old edition. In other words, as long as the new edition is really new, it would cost the publisher nothing to give the old version away.
  • But if the premium edition is just a superficial update of the old one, it will cost the publisher big money. So publishers would have significant incentive not to update editions for no good reason, thereby costing consumers (students) money they didn’t really need to spend (and may not have had in the first place).
  • All the add-ons like CD-ROMs, websites, and other items that often get bundled with textbooks would only be bundled with the premium edition. That would provide additional incentive for those who can afford to pay for the premium edition to do so. (It would also provide a litmus test for exactly how much value those add-ons really add to the book.)
  • It’s a lot easier to download a PDF of a deprecated version of a book, free and legally, then to try your luck with the various torrent sites or what-have-you to get the newest edition. Therefore, pirated versions of the textbook would be less desirable, benefitting both publishers and authors.
  • Schools with limited budgets (including homeschooling families) could simply agree not to use the premium version and go with the free, deprecated version instead. This would always be the case if the cost of the new edition outweighs the benefits of adopting it — which again, puts pressure on the publishers not to update editions unless there are really good reasons to do so and the differences between editions are really significant.
  • The above point also holds in a big, big way for schools in developing countries or in poverty-stricken areas in this country.
  • Individual students could also choose to use the old edition, and presumably accept responsibility for the differences in edition, even if their schools use the premium edition. Those who teach college know that many students do this now already, except the old editions aren’t free (unless someone gives the book to them).
  • All this provides publishers and authors to take the moral high road while still preserving their means of making money and doing good business.

Some individual authors have already done this: the legendary Gil Strang and his calculus book, Thomas Judson and his abstract algebra book (which I used last semester and really liked), Fred Goodman and his algebra book. These books were all formerly published by major houses at considerable cost, but were either dropped or deprecated, and the authors made them free.

How about some of the major book publishers stepping up and doing the same?

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Filed under Apple, Life in academia, Profhacks, Teaching, Technology, Textbook-free, Textbooks

14 responses to “A simple idea for publishers to help students (and themselves)

  1. Will Farris

    Suppose a major philanthropist decided to create an entirely new post-secondary educational institution from scratch, one that was free from any profit motive, political agenda, or educational fame-seeking. What would the mathematics training look like? First of all, in its essence, is the knowledge of how to define a derivative, for example, proprietary or is it a commodity? There are only so many ways to pedagogically spin it, and is each way worthy of the trouble of a copyright? Creativity abounds whether there is a money motive – just look at all one can learn strictly from following blogs, youtube, public domain, etc. Can we establish a best of breed way of educating in specific subjects like calculus? Is there a single best instructor in the world or maybe a top 5 or so? Also, can there not be an agreed upon body of content that would constitute a proper and complete course in the subject so that where someone to say “yes, I have had a 3 semester sequence of university calculus” everyone would know exactly what information and level of mastery that person has achieved and been exposed to. As it is, there is so much variety and disparity among courses, which perhaps to be expected in the humanities, but something like standard calculus, or any undergrad math course for that matter, there ought to be a much tighter criteria. There is exactly that for the Calculus AP system and many other bodies of knowledge.
    In the commercial world everybody is set on establishing differentiators for their product or service whether such really exists or not. This is all well and good for iPad vs Kindle etc. but is it good for Harvard vs. State U.? I would begrudgingly say yes insofar as the total collegiate experience is concerned but should the calculus class that a Harvard student takes be any different in content or rigor that one takes at Calhoun Community College? Well, at least they all have the same access to textbooks.
    I guess the point is that there continues to be a very real human element extant in the material. And, call me a pessimist but publishers, like pharmaceutical companies and most other commercial enterprises, are way more interested in their bottom line than the well-being of society. But the bigger problem in today’s digital age where one can skirt the profit thing if desired, is that professors disagree on what makes up a good math book for a given subject. Some don’t use them or write up their own custom material. ESL students follow texts like a life preserver, as in fact they are.
    Well, back to this Utopian institution mentioned in the beginning, could there ever be such a world where everyone could agree on common content for individual courses? One’s choice of college and major depends on so many random factors as it is. In theory there should be just such a thing possible, and many countries do indeed standardize curricula to reflect at least a minimum body of knowledge. I myself have taken over the years 5 courses at 5 different schools with 5 different instructors that would essentially go by the name Introduction to Western Philosophy, and the difference between each iteration of the course was so huge it left me thinking how unfair to those who only get this particular exposure in this course or that course.
    It is a very messy business fraught with profit and professional motives and institutional inertia and perhaps like me it takes a lifetime to fill in all the holes in my education, but I think it starts with the textbooks since that is the most convenient venue that serves as a window into the secrets of the subject therein addressed.

  2. While I like this idea, I am not sure why this is a win-win-win. It seems more like a risk-risk-win.

    Publishers would need more than a “moral high ground” as an incentive to risk revenue like this. Is there any other economic lever that could be brought into play?

    @Will, I disagree with the statement “There are only so many ways to pedagogically spin it.” There are a vast number of ways (just look at all the methods historically), and I have no doubt many more will be invented.

    • Will Farris

      I am referring to the ways one may take in explicating any given concept that arises in calculus or any subject. I am really not speaking of any general method dreamed up by the Columbia Teacher’s College but simply explanatory “angles” a teacher on the street may take to try to get an idea across. There are only so many ways one can attempt before the intuitive apparatus of the student must take hold and either “get it” or not. The great bulk of quantitative learning is by way of iteration – lets do a lot of problems and exercises in hopes of the inductive process eventually leading one to understanding. The relevant THEORY is deductively conveyed by the professor-lecturer and may be approached from some finite number of learning styles and associated methodology (look at this, class: if x and y are defined as true then Z must be true), but the LEARNING is inductively appropriated by the student through diligent efforts at problem solving (now this statement look like X, and this statement looks like Y, so now I must crank out something legitimately like Z).

      So given any particular concept I still think there are only a finite number of ways to “TEACH” it. Vast is still finite, and most are now deemed defunct or ineffectual by the educational intelligensia, but depending on the “system” there are 4 or perhaps up to 8 learning styles that can be defined before they become so nuanced that any further attempt at granularity becomes superfluous, anyway. Which in fact is the unrealistic dream of some: Oh, each precious student is a unique creation that must be approached in a unique way so that no mind is left behind, etc. Lets train a million tutors!

      • How do intuitive explanations equate with learning styles? The brain doesn’t have that kind of one-and-one simplicity where there is the Perfect Explanation A for Learning Style A and Perfect Explaantion B for Learning Style B.

        I, and hopefully most other teachers, could easily crank out 10 different intuitive explanations for the derivative. Some (most?) of those explanations would be different from other teachers. Probably I could manage 20 if I had an excess of time on my hands.

        Now, one tendency I see in mathematicians is to equate all explanations involving, say, distance and velocity to be the same, when in actual practice for students they are very different. So my “different” is perhaps not your “different”; in terms of actual pedagogical value, however, details matter. Education is constantly evolving, with explanations continually (usually) getting clearer. I would never want to ossify that.

  3. It would only be win-win if they made major changes in their textbooks with the new editions. I haven’t seen that they do. Have you seen any that do?

    If any reading this knows of a good beginning algebra text in online free edition, I’m interested. I’ll be teaching that course in the fall, and will not be requiring the official textbook.

    • Sue, the classic advanced geometry text by Greenberg and Harper recently went from third edition to fourth edition and included a lot of major changes, all of them improvements. Date of third edition: 1993. Date of fourth edition: 2007! That’s a point I was making in the article — significant changes to a textbook almost by definition can’t happen too frequently. So when you see a calculus book that’s gone through six editions in 15 years, something’s up.

      I could definitely see more frequent editions, including significant changes, for books in fast-moving fields like computer science, though. You can’t use a book on databases that was written for a 2005 version of MS Access, for instance.

  4. Carolyn

    All I want is for the big heavy books to be broken into two or three smaller texts so the kids don’t break their backs carrying them around…..

  5. Robert, it’s good to know that some textbooks aren’t getting revised every 3 to 5 years, just to make more money.

    I agree with Jason that good teachers can keep improving their explanations, but overall, I think a decent textbook in math doesn’t need to change. I can add what I think necessary to its basic explanations. There’s no excuse for $100 plus textbooks, imnsho.

  6. Will Farris

    Not wanting to be polemical, but there is a limit (pun intended) to the improvements that one can make in conveying information to students. Otherwise, one is saying in defiance of reality that humans are infinitely capable, which obviously they are not, or that language is perfectible, which it is demonstrably not. Over time explanations in some things have certainly gotten clearer, but I would assert that this is due to cultural changes such as less formal language being OK to use in textbooks whereas years ago everything had to be written not for students but for peers looking to adopt the book. For example, Calculus For the Rest of Us, or Div, Grad, Curl and all That is so much better than my 1970’s college texts covering the same stuff. Also, to your point Robert, the advent of technology seems to demand frequent new additions if just for the code examples and exercises.

    I own at last count 37 different undergrad calculus texts and have consulted them all on specific topics like the nature of the differential or the epsilon-delta method of proof. Aside from a few historical references and illustrative problem sets there simply are not 37 different intuitive approaches to conveying the lesson – the material reads and flows nearly identically from book to book spanning some 45 years. The order of presentation, symbolism, or vocabulary may vary, but that’s not material to the point. Were one to invent a truly new way to communicate this material from that which gone before then it would be news to me and deserving of a prize. Mere re-wording an explanation does not fit my criteria of a new intuitive approach – ossification is a de facto reality because of the constraints of language and the facts under consideration do not change. In fact, I am aware of only 2 true ways to approach calculus: the Weierstraussian – Cauchy approach with limits, and the Leibnizian – Robinson infinitesimal hyperreal approach. And even then it all boils down to a process of infinity that is not settled even today. Nonetheless it works and fascinates. The truth of infinity being central to the process is singular and univocal. I can’t image anyone being able to invent 5 let alone 20 ways to uniquely and intuitively approach this in their teaching. So, if by insisting that there are just a few ways to really get at it, and thus by extension this somehow depreciates the function of a teacher (and that is the hidden undercurrent here I suspect), then that is like saying that since there are only 3 ways to harvest corn depreciates the value of agriculture to society.

    At any rate, in the end, at the institutional level it is still all about the money as the raison d’etre for making new books at all. As long as there are teachers that say this book sucks while that book is awesome there will always be the Stewarts of the world building vulgar rich houses off the backs of impoverished students who will be paying back their student loans long after he and his cursed books are dead and gone.

    (Note: most of my 37 books were bought used thank goodness. I do love beautiful new calculus books, and don’t really care about this issue too much, because in the free market people find a way – eventually :-0)

    • In fact, I am aware of only 2 true ways to approach calculus: the Weierstraussian – Cauchy approach with limits, and the Leibnizian – Robinson infinitesimal hyperreal approach.

      This makes it clear we are simply using different definitions of “different”. But still..

      The truth of infinity being central to the process is singular and univocal. I can’t image anyone being able to invent 5 let alone 20 ways to uniquely and intuitively approach this in their teaching.

      …I get the feeling you need to get out there and talk with more teachers.

      • Will Farris

        You are quite right in that different words and numbers and images used in lectures is not what I mean by different. In that case, one is merely just shuffling the same old deck. If we don’t equivocate here, you have refuted nothing I have said thus far. If you insist that your approaches are so unique and better than what has gone on before perhaps someday you will be building your own 24 million dollar house, and I will be proud for you save the probable fact that, like Stewart, it will reflect more political savvy than pedagogical excellence. Oh yeah, I follow blogs of dozens of math teachers, am married to one, was one myself for years, and am about to attend an ACSI conference this very week with hundreds of math teachers – so believe me, dude, I know what I am talking about.

        I defy you to show me anything truly new in a pedagogical arrangement of material for freshman calculus that is not contained in my 37 volumes.

        Of course, I willing admit I am basing my judgments in some cases on blogosphere criteria: for example, I think that perhaps the 2 best and hardest working and creative math teachers out there would be Sam Shah in high school and Robert Talbert in college – oh to be young again and back in school! Honorable mention also goes to David Massey and his World Wide Center of Mathematics.

      • I think we have established that we’re not really disagreeing here, except perhaps in the significance of “different words and numbers and images”.

        If you take my five approaches to infinity post (linked below) you could argue (for example) mathematically #1 and #5 are the same; however I feel pedagogically they are radically different.

        I defy you to show me anything truly new in a pedagogical arrangement of material for freshman calculus that is not contained in my 37 volumes.

        Not arguging with you here: the teaching of Calculus has been ossified. (I do know of a couple exotic reform curriculums but nothing that has been put into serious play.) Where we differ is I don’t consider this a necessary or good state of affairs.

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