Category Archives: Textbooks

A business model for free content

In a comment on an earlier post, I said I would try to blog about Flat World Knowledge and their business model soon. Here’s a 20-minute video that goes over this business model which allows textbooks to be free but still provides compensation to authors.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “A business model for free content“, posted with vodpod

Again: Free textbooks can be done; it just requires a different approach than the one we’re used to.

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Filed under Teaching, Technology, Textbook-free, Textbooks

Free textbooks: It can be done

The last time I taught abstract algebra, I used no textbook but rather my own homemade notes. That went reasonably well, but in doing initial preps for teaching the course again this coming fall I realized my notes needed a serious overhaul; and since I’m playing stay-at-home dad to three kids under 6 this summer, this is looking more like a sabbatical project than something I can get done before August. So last month I set about auditioning textbooks.

I looked at the usual suspects — the excellent book by Joe Gallian which I’ve used before and really liked, Hungerford’s undergraduate text*, Rotman — but in the end,  I went with Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications by Tom Judson. I would say it’s comparable to Gallian, with a little more flexibility in the topic sequencing and a greater, more integrated treatment of applications to coding theory and cryptography. (This last was something I was really looking for.) There’s even a free companion to the book which incorporates Sage, which I am sorely tempted to use as well because learning Sage has been a pet project of mine.

But what’s really different about this book is that it’s free, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. I am having the bookstore prepare print copies for the students — I asked the students if they wanted a print version in addition to the free PDF’s online, and they said “yes” — which the bookstore will sell for a whopping $16.95, just enough to cover the costs of copying and 3-hole punching the 400+ pages of the book. I’m happy because I found a book that really fits my needs; the students are happy because they get a good book too, for a tremendous bang-to-buck ratio.

In the long and contentious comment thread for my post about James Stewart’s new $24M mansion, I suggested that Stewart should consider topping off his impressive (and apparently lucrative) teaching and writing career by making his Calculus book freely available online for anybody who wants it. That suggestion was met with shocked incredulity: “If you had any idea how much work it was to write and maintain a textbook, you’d never consider making it free.” Well, I’m happy to report that hard work and good writing need not necessarily be mutually exclusive with giving it away.

In fact, as more well-written textbooks appear for free online — and there were even more free abstract algebra e-books I did not end up selecting — the commercial market might find itself in trouble.

* Actually, I requested the Hungerford algebra book, complete with a crystal-clear note that I needed to have it in hand by April 10 in order to be able to adopt it in time for our bookstore. To this date I have not received it. Another problem with commercial textbooks: the distribution model for review copies is dreadful. I’m always receiving multiple copies of books I neither need nor am interested in, and not getting the books I do need and am interested in.

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Filed under Abstract algebra, Calculus, Education, Teaching, Textbook-free, Textbooks

Where the money for your calculus book goes


You too can own a massive house if you sell enough calculus books.

There’s a new, five-story, 18000 square foot, $24 million house in Toronto that is built of curves and glass and boasts its own professional-quality concert hall. The owner? Not a billionaire financier, head of state, movie or sports star, or anything of the sort — it’s James Stewart, author of the Stewart Calculus franchise of books.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

As visitors descend into the house, the fins disappear and the views widen. On the first floor, push a button and a 24-foot wall of glass windows vanishes into the floor, opening the pool area to the outside. Curves are everywhere, down to the custom door handles and light fixtures. The architects are even working with Steinway to create a coordinating piano. […]

An hour before five friends arrived for dinner, Mr. Stewart ambled around his kitchen, marinating some pork tenderloin chunks and tossing chopped leeks, red peppers and corn into a deep soup pot to simmer. He laid some ready-made sushi on a large red platter and then leaned back against a green-hued quartz countertop to relax.

Mr. Stewart say he isn’t overwhelmed by his home. “I just enjoy wandering around it,” he says. “Even now I’m still discovering details, and I’ve lived here for more than a year.”

Go to the article and look at the slideshow for more. It’s indeed a beautiful home (in a way it reminds me of St. Procopius Abbey near Chicago, which I visited last year).  I’m certainly not going to be down on Prof. Stewart for building his dream home, for which he apparently saved up money for 60 years. But it certainly destroys the old idea that professors never make money off of textbooks they write. And it also makes you wonder, if you recently spent $150 on a Stewart Calculus book, what part of that house you have a legitimate claim to. If you’re a Stewart Calculus book owner, I’d say you have a right to stop in at his place for sushi unannounced at any time.

A proposition for Prof. Stewart: Now that you’ve built your dream home and established your legacy, take all of your calculus books and make them available as free PDF downloads under a Creative Commons license, so students who are spending down to their last dime on textbooks can have a shot at saving for their dream houses, too.

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Filed under Life in academia, Textbooks

Still not Kindled

kindle2So has released the Kindle 2, to mostly positive reviews. But I think Amazon missed several opportunities to make the Kindle 2 a must-have device for people who work with text content. I outlined these opportunities back in November 2007 in this blog post. Let’s check them off: 

  • Native PDF support: No. By “native support” I mean that if I have a document that I want to put on my Kindle and view, I ought to be able to do so easily and free of charge, and it ought to look on my Kindle as it would if I had printed it. But this is not the case for the Kindle 2. To get a PDF or other kind of document onto your Kindle, you have to email it as an attachment and have Amazon do it — for a price of $0.10 per document. And even then, according to Amazon’s specs, you may get a PDF whose formatting is completely out of whack if the PDF is “complex”, which for mathematical documents it probably is. (Although I would like to hear from Kindle 2 owners who successfully get a typical mathematics article to display on their devices, properly formatted.) I can understand that PDF’s are difficult to work with display-wise and perhaps Adobe is the right group to complain to about this. But my main objection is the cost involved. I shouldn’t have to pay any amount, no matter how small, to take a document that I created or possess and put it onto a device that I own
  • Touch screen and/or handwriting recognition: No. I just can’t figure out why they can’t put a touch screen on this thing. Does it screw up the display resolution? It can’t be because touch screens are expensive; as I pointed out in the earlier article, Palm Pilots had touch screens back in the late 90’s and it didn’t jack their prices up inaccessibly. 
  • Improvements to UI and buttons: It looks like yes. It certainly doesn’t look cheap, as the Kindle 1 did. So sexiness is one thing Amazon did right here. 
  • Free access to any RSS feed: No. You still can only subscribe to the RSS feeds that Amazon provides (although there are a lot more of these now than there used to be), and it still costs money. Slashdot, for example, is $2 per month. That’s not much, but why should I have to be paying for this when I can get RSS feeds for free on a computer or an iPhone? And if I want to subscribe to 100 RSS feeds, as I do, then am I going to be ponying up $100/month for these? That’s too much. 
  • WiFi as a paid option: No. Here’s another one I don’t get. I can appreciate the flexibility of 3G connectivity (especially after owning an iPod touch for a few months and striking out on wifi coverage in various places). But why not make a “Kindle Deluxe” for $100 more that includes WiFi connectivity in addition to 3G? People would buy this. Why not make it? 
  • Price drop: Forget about it. The Kindle 2 retails for $359. That’s about the price I paid for my iPod touch. Even if you agree that $359 is a fair price for the Kindle 2 — and this is a highly debatable point — the fact is that this is only the beginning of the expense of owning and using it. You have to pay to have your own documents put on it; you have to pay to access RSS feeds and then only the ones Amazon provides; and of course there’s the cost of the books themselves. Kindle books are, to be sure, significantly discounted over their print versions. But how many books would I need to purchase in order to recoup the loss of purchasing the Kindle in the first place, paying to transport my own documents, and paying to access my RSS feeds? I could do the math, but it’s probably more than I’d want to pay. 

Devices like the Kindle really show a lot of promise, especially in education. It’s exciting to think that something like the Kindle could be used to provide students with cheaper textbooks which they could carry, annotate, and share with others. And I like the idea of being able to carry around PDF’s of articles and books, sharing and annotating as well. So it’s disappointing that Amazon gets us this close to having a killer text content managing device, but stops right at the doorway. 

Still, if Amazon or someone wanted to send me one of these as a gift, I’d take it.


Filed under Technology, Textbooks

Why do we overcomplicate calculus like this?

A labelled tangent to a curve. Created to repl...
Image via Wikipedia

In the Stewart calculus text, which we use here, the first chapter is essentially a precalculus review. The second chapter opens up with a treatment of tangent lines and velocities, with the idea of secant line slopes converging to tangent line slopes and average velocities converging to instantaneous velocities taking center stage.

Calculating average velocity is just a matter of identifying two time values and two position values and then performing two subtractions and a division. It is not complicated. Doing this several times for shorter and shorter time periods is also not complicated, and then using the results to guess the instantaneous velocity is a little complicated but not that bad once you understand the (essentially qualitative, not quantitative) idea behind shrinking the length of the interval to get an instantaneous value out of a sequence of averages.

So I nearly hit the roof when a student came in this morning needing help understanding the Student Solutions Manual for the Stewart text on a problem where you had to find the average velocity of a moving object from 2 seconds to 2.5 seconds. A formula for position is given, y = s(t). The simple way to do this — the way that works, does not dumb the process down, and yet makes it understandable to the broadest possible audience and therefore sets  up general understanding of the more complicated idea of derivative calculations later — is to calculate s(2.5), calculate s(2), and then calculate \frac{s(2.5)-s(2)}{2.5 - 2}. Fifth-graders do this.

Instead, the Student Solution Manual does it like this:

  • Let h represent some positive number.
  • Calculate and fully simply the expression \frac{s(2+h)-s(2)}{h}.
  • Plug in h = 0.5.

This is crazy, absurd, and downright dangerous. It’s as if Stewart, and the person who wrote the manual, really believe that calculus is made up of algebra, and students who are in calculus are uniformly comfortable and skilled with algebra to the point that their way is just as transparent and simple as calculating distance divided by time — as if the algebraic work that ensues when you perform step (2) above were as natural as the concept of velocity itself and students spoke algebra like a first or second language.

Yes, the book’s approach works — and it closely mirrors what’s going to happen later when we want to get an exact value of the instantaneous velocity by letting h \rightarrow 0. But that’s not what students are doing right now. What students are doing is trying to understand the concept of average velocity. It’s not complicated. The complications should come, if at all, on the back end of the subject — where we are trying to make the concept of instantaneous velocity precise through limit calculations — but not on the front end when students are just trying to figure out what’s going on.

In the middle of typing this post out, another student came in, equally confused about the exact same problem. I told him to close his solutions manual. I asked him: What’s the definition of average velocity? He thought about it, and then gave me the right definition. “OK, then,” I said, “How would you get the average velocity from t=2 to t=2.5 here?” And he gave me an exactly right description of the process. The relief on his face was palpable. He understood this concept but the student solutions manual made it appear that he didn’t! How bad is it when you need a manual for the student manual?

Calculus is a really simple subject when you get to its core. I wish the book treated it that way.

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Filed under Calculus, Education, Math, Teaching, Textbooks

iPod update: A new hope

So at the end of the comment thread on my iPod lust decision process about whether or not to buy a new iPod touch, I concluded somewhat glumly that I had probably better wait until the gap between what I’d saved up and what the 32 GB model costs is made up somehow. I am happy to announce the gap has been closed, and then some, thanks to the dude that comes around every now and then to buy back textbooks. He just happened to drop in this afternoon, and I freakin’ unloaded, to the tune of three dozen books sold back. (My shelves are happy too.)

In case you’re unfamiliar with this process, there are people who make a living off of coming by professors’ offices and purchasing unused books for cash (at a rate far less than their retail value)  and then selling them to the open market. Ever wonder where those used books in the college bookstore come from? Some of them come from students, but a lot of them come from the buy-back people.

But there’s an ethical dilemma. A lot of the books I am selling back are review copies which were sent to me, gratis, by the publisher. This practice of sending out free books all the time is a major contributor to skyrocketing textbook prices. I’m having some guilt pangs about taking the money I get from selling books, which I received for free but for which students have to pay exorbitant amounts, to buy an iPod. On the one hand, I feel like I am profiting from students’ misfortune. On the other hand, by selling books back to the book-buying dude, who will then sell them at a cut rate to campus bookstores, I am providing a robust supply of lower-cost pre-owned books to students who would otherwise have to pay a lot more for the new versions. And let’s face it, I really want that iPod.

Am I overthinking this?


Filed under Apple, Life in academia, Technology, Textbooks

Sunday reading: Editorial on high textbook prices

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette has this article today by Karen Francisco which is an excellent, if troubling, survey of the problem of rising textbook costs and the things people are doing to offset those costs. I was interviewed by Ms. Francisco last week for this article, and I am happy to say that unlike in my previous newspaper interview experience, she got my comments exactly right (and asked if my name and position could appear in the interview). Here’s what I had to say, although you should read the whole thing:

Robert Talbert, an associate professor of mathematics and computing science at Indiana’s Franklin College, is one of several hundred U.S. college faculty members who have signed on to PIRG’s online pledge to help control textbook costs. He’s passionate about the issue.

“Many of my students are either first-generation college students, students from middle- to lower-income families, or both. They are struggling to afford college as it is – often having to work off campus, which then affects their class performance – and it really pains me to see textbook companies charge more and more for a less and less useful product,” he said in an e-mail.

Talbert said he’s bothered not just by the cost, but by the quality of the books, which he said are often “poorly written, chaotically organized and full of so many irrelevant graphical elements and sidebars” that the information students need is difficult to find. If he can avoid it, Talbert doesn’t require a textbook or directs his students to an inexpensive one.

“In my abstract algebra course last fall, I used no textbook but rather homemade course notes and a handful of helpful Web sites,” he wrote.

Of course this is all old news to Casting Out Nines readers!

Later, after discussing Rice University’s adoption of an open source textbook for their introductory statistics class, she went on to quote me about the potential for open source textbooks:

“Imagine having a calculus textbook, the contributors to which are some of the best calculus professors in practice today, and which includes not only text material but also links to Web sites, embedded video, interactive applets for visual/kinesthetic learners, and user-contributed problem sets – for free,” he wrote.

“There’s a stigma against such things now, just as there is a continuing stigma against Wikipedia in academia (because academicians have a hard time accepting the legitimacy of something that is not peer-reviewed), but I think once students start learning and getting engaged with material through these things, that stigma will go away quickly,” he wrote.

Actually I think the stigma isn’t so much against Wikipedia itself as it is the notion of putting Wikipedia on the same level of authority as, say, a peer-reviewed monograph or a published encyclopedia. But a lot of academic types let their stigma start there and pretty soon the entire concept of an open-source informational source is stigmatized. That’s just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Again, go read the whole article, especially for the stories from students about what they are made to buy at a high price that can be had elsewhere for next to nothing, comparatively. It’s shocking.


Filed under Education, Teaching, Textbook-free, Textbooks, Web 2.0