Tag Archives: Textbooks

Is the iPad really what students need?

Dave Caolo believes that students are one of the four groups of people who will make the iPad huge, because:

Students are on a fixed budget, and e-books are typically cheaper than their paper-based counterparts. Also, consider all of the money publishers lose when students buy used books from the campus bookstores. Additionally, Apple can distribute textbooks through iTunes U — an established and proven system that students, faculty and staff already know how to use.

Suddenly the iPad is a device that follows a student from his/her freshman year of high school all the way through graduate school. Why buy a laptop when every student has a device that can be a textbook, reference tool, Internet appliance and whatever else the imaginations of developers can dream up?

I do believe that the iPad’s success will be closely tied to its success in the EDU sector, but Caolo’s analysis misses some important points about students and their educational computing needs.

  1. The argument about used books explains precisely why students, and conscientious faculty, will resist textbooks on an iPad. Already textbook companies charge full (and overly high) price for products that are speciously “revised” every couple of years, even though the revisions are virtually identical to the prior versions. If using the iPad as a sort of universal textbook locks students in to using only the most recent version at the highest possible price, then how is this a step forward? Students would be better off purchasing used versions of textbooks.  (One way to ameliorate this problem is for textbook companies to take my advice and give away previous versions of their textbooks whenever a new revision comes out.)
  2. Students need more from their computers than just email clients, ebook readers, and web access. They need to be able to run spreadsheets and word processors simultaneously. They need to be able to run sophisticated scientific computing software. They need to be able to install and run legacy software that their universities may have purchased — or even developed in-house — decades ago. (For example, in our math courses alone at my college, we use Minitab, Winplot, and even Derive. The chances of these being ported to the iPad are basically zero.) They need to be able to do video chats with Skype. These are just a few of the things that the iPad cannot do right now.
  3. The above argument assumes that textbooks are the center of a student’s education. I would argue that the best thing about an iPad in education is that it provides a great platform for getting away from textbooks as the center and focusing on existing, web-based information sources instead. Why invent a whole new class of technology only to have it perpetuate a rapidly-outmoded means of instruction?

I think the iPad is a neat-looking device, and it does have the capacity to change the entire landscape of computing from a user interface point of view. The next time I’m up for an upgrade to my work machine (in 2014, sadly) I fully expect to be getting an Apple device that has all the guts and power of my new Macbook Pro but with a sleek form factor and intuitive touch interface like the iPad (apparently) has. This kind of device is probably what students need. The first-generation iPad, not so much, not right now at least. Although I am sure students will buy it.

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Filed under Apple, Education, Educational technology, Higher ed, Technology, Textbook-free, Textbooks

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

OXFORD, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 08:  A student reads...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

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

Where the money for your calculus book goes

stewart

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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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?

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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.

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

What are the “great books” of mathematics?

I was looking at the web sites of a few colleges the other day which use a “Great Books” curriculum. This is an approach to a core curriculum in which students work their way through a listing of the great books from the past, across a variety of disciplines. Here’s an example from Thomas Aquinas College, a highly-regarded Catholic liberal arts college in Santa Paula, California. St. John’s College is probably the best-known example; I remember getting a mailer from them when I was a senior in high school, and I was fascinated by the idea of attending a Great Books university at the time.  There are also a few public universities which offer a great books curriculum as an option within the larger curricular structure of the university, for example as part of an honors program. 

Apparently Mortimer Adler is credited with coining the concept of the Great Books, and he gives three criteria for a book to be a Great Book (taken from the Wikipedia article): 

  • the book has contemporary significance; that is, it has relevance to the problems and issues of our times;
  • the book is inexhaustible; it can be read again and again with benefit;
  • the book is relevant to a large number of the great ideas and great issues that have occupied the minds of thinking individuals for the last 25 centuries.
I am fairly interested in this concept of the Great Books for the same reason I am interested in the concept of having no textbooks whatsoever, or free textbooks, or cheap textbooks from a better time — Great Books appear to provide an affordable, strongly intellectual alternative to overpriced, bloated modern textbooks which have an increasingly low signal-to-noise ratio in their contents. But one of the things I’ve seen lacking in a lot of the “Great Books” universities’ curricula is mathematical content. St. John’s College has students reading Euclid’s Elements as well as Descartes’ Geometry and Discourse on Method, Pascal’s Conic Sections, Newton’s Principia Mathematica (!), some philosophical essays by Leibniz (does that count as math?), Dedekind’s Essay on the Theory of Numbers, and several papers by Einstein in which students are required to work through the math. But St. John’s appears to be by a very great margin the most mathematically-inclined of the Great Books crowd; most such universities have students reading the Elements and that’s it.  
What do you think are the Great Books of mathematics? If you were to build a mathematics major around a Great Books framework, what would you include and at what level (freshman, etc.) would you have students encounter them? I think articles and monographs could be considered “great books” as well. 

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Outlines for textbook affordability

Via Vlorbik, here’s a letter to the editor (PDF) of the AMS Notices by Seymour Lipschutz extolling the virtues of Schaum’s Outlines as course texts and giving some suggestions for those choosing textbooks.

I agree with Lipschutz’ feelings about Schaum’s Outlines, up to a point. I’m a big fan of Schaum’s Outlines; they cost less than $20 and are loaded with precise, succint summaries of course material and worked-out problems. I
survived college physics and advanced calculus largely because of my now-battered Schaum’s Outlines for those subjects. I ordered the latest edition of the differential equations Outlines as I was considering using it for my DE course next semester, and I liked what I saw very much; and the publisher sent me a gratis copy of the beginning calculus Outlines and it was very good as well. I will be suggesting these outlines strongly to the students in those courses.

But to use them as the textbook for a course? I’m a little skeptical.  They are, after all, outlines. I think that students in the lower-level courses like calculus, and to some extent mid-level courses like DE’s or linear algebra, would benefit from having a more fully-featured textbook.

On the other hand, a carefully-written set of course notes made up by the professor, augmented by Schaum’s Outlines and hand-picked resources from the web, make up a pretty good blueprint for a cheap, portable, and effective package of course materials that I think students would get a lot more out of than a single monolithic textbook that they can’t carry around easily and never read.

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