Tag Archives: Textbook-free

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

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

Questions about the algebra course

Jackie asked a series of good questions about the textbook-free modern algebra course and some of the student outcomes I was seeing in it. I tried to respond to those in the comments, but things started to get lengthy, so instead I will get to them here.

Do you think the results are only a result of a textbook free course?

To repeat what I said in the comments: I think the positives in the course come not so much from the fact that we didn’t have a textbook, but more from the fact that the course was oriented toward solving problems rather than covering material. There was a small core of material that we had to cover, since the seniors were getting tested on it, but mostly we spent our time in class presenting, dissecting, and discussing problems. We didn’t cover as much as I would have liked, but this is a price I decided to pay at the outset.

Most traditional textbooks don’t lend themselves well to this kind of class design. The ratio of text to problems in a typical textbook is probably something like 5:1 — a lot higher than that in some books. When you have a book in the course, it almost forces itself into the center of the class universe and everything tends to revolve around it, and take on its flavor. When the book spends most, almost all, of its pages on stuff for students to read rather than on problems for students to solve, then I guess it’s possible to have a problem-solving oriented class, but you’re going to be swimming upstream the whole way.

It works better, I think, to have no central book — and instead, provide problems via the course notes with just enough information to solve the problems. And if the students need more information, make it an assignment for library research or web queries.

Were there any negative outcomes? Anything you didn’t like as a result of choosing to structure the course in this manner?

There are some important algebra topics, in rings and particularly in fields, that are not going to get the time they really deserve. And I had to cut short or cut out some topics in group theory that are normally standard fare. At least, I see this as a negative; whether it really makes a difference in the long run is yet to be determined.

The way I select students to do course tasks in class basically involves randomly ordering the students and having them attempt the problems one after the other. It seemed like several times, students who had not presented much ended up first on the list on the days they didn’t have something and last on the list on the days they did. Call it bad luck or Murphy’s Law or what-have-you; but I didn’t like how there was no mechanism for making sure the lower-scoring students got more chances to work.

Some students in the class still struggle with basic problem-solving skills and writing proofs. I think they have enough education to carry out successful problem-solving on proofs most of the time. But not having me lecture has meant that they don’t get to see professionally put-together proofs very often unless they go do some reading.

And I think that this course structure caused stress and even ill will among the students who were not used to having so much personal responsibility in their college work. I think that’s an unintended consequence of implementing a course design that is basically sound; I regret that it happened, and I’d like students to have a more uniformly positive experience in the class, but I’m not going to change the basic course design.

Would you do this again?

You bet, although I believe this way of running the class works in some situations and wouldn’t work in others. I thought about running my differential equations class next semester like this, but that course is so focused on methods that a blind application of this course structure onto that course doesn’t seem appropriate. Maybe I’ll come up with some variant that works.

What would you keep the same? What would you change?

I would definitely keep my method for assigning problems to students, my rubric for grading course tasks, and just the overall procedure for running the class sessions that I used. And I’d keep the feature where students get to choose the weights on the various assessments.

I’d do a little more with the course wiki. Right now students are expected to write up their solutions to course note tasks on the wiki, but there is no point value in doing so nor a penalty for not doing so. The exams are open-wiki, though, so there is some incentive for writing results up well. But I think I would make the posting of solutions mandatory and enforce the rule.

I’d also try to have a complete set of notes before the course began. I have been writing things as I go, and it’s led to some snafus I could have avoided.

I might try writing the course notes so that rings and fields come first.

I’d seriously consider having proof techniques be offered as the subject of weekly help sessions or additional course work. Some students are still struggling with basic problem-solving techniques, and they really need more help than what they are asking for.

That’s that for the questions. Any more?

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