Saturday, August 21, 2010

Weight of the Argument

from Scott Macleod (Dangerously Irrelevant) comes this angst-filled twitter post:

and he asks: "Hmmm… What’s in there that’s not available in at least a dozen places on the Web for free?"

Well, organization, for one thing -- it's one book instead of "a dozen places on the Web" for each topic. Location, for another. Accuracy, for a third. Fourth, cost. Lastly, bias.

I'm all for free textbooks for the school, but those who write them occasionally want to get paid for their work. If the school buys a textbook, they have similar editions for all the students in the class and assurance that someone has vetted them for accuracy, minimal bias, and clarity for the level of student. It's also free to the student. The cost to the school is spread over several years. Online resources are currently too expensive or scattered and useless.

Bias is similarly easier with a book - Howard Zinn was a socialist. Knowing that meant you could easily work around it or extol it but you'd always be dealing with a known quantity. Websites change too often for you to trust them without verifying.

Hoo boy, trust. What if that website you linked to in August is kaput and serving ads in December when the parent tries to follow it -- or worse, gets squatted on by Stormfront -- and that parent hits (NSFW) instead of the main page for the King Center (the real one). A textbook gets vetted once.

Accurate? Accuracy matters: Read here:
Technology might be the Answer but not ... for the story of the definition of Radian.

I think the iPad (or similar) will be the textbook of the future, as soon as Apple drops the ridiculous iTunes Store file limitations and opens up the platform to flash. It would be wonderful. It's the right size, has color, can run video, touch screen and type, has everything except openness. We're close but until Steve Jobs realizes the goldmine he could be sitting on, we'll still have books. He'll charge for the convenience, but it would beat paper.

Free online doesn't necessarily mean free to the student. I've noticed that free materials invariably are better and easier to use when printed - that's a cost for the student, especially if we're talking about inkjets. It always amuses me when conference people make a big noise about "saving money, paper and the environment by not printing out notes and handouts" and then you look around at all the attendees who printed everything out themselves at their expense on less efficient inkjets. 

Then, there's readability. Those textbooks that are free on the web -- I'm thinking the California initiative -- are not easily read. I'm reminded of the study comparing ease of reading of Kindle, iPad, paper and computer screen (including laptop). "iPad, Kindle, and the printed book all scored fairly high at 5.8, 5.7, and 5.6, respectively. The PC, however, scored an abysmal 3.6." Imagine if they had been working with a math book? Again, I have hopes for the iPad or a similar, but it's not quite worth it yet.

Let's pretend that we're not printing out material, just accessing it.  How trustworthy is it?  Is it "Wikipedia good?" Has it been edited recently by someone who knows the truth or is the urban legend version of history taking hold here?  Just because everyone knows that "tea partiers" are the only true patriots doesn't mean that it's a true fact. I have confidence in that printed book.

Why is the online textbook free? Is it free because it's the pdf version of the second edition, copyright 1990?

Organization is another big issue for me. The material for a typical history or even math course would be so widespread over the internet, it would be a tremendous pain to find and collate. Why should I spend that time and effort finding and verifying what the book publisher is willing to do for me? Nothing will be free but I think that iPad (click above to enlarge) holds the most promise.

Then there's linkrot. I took an online thing this summer and 1 of the links had expired and was serving ads - less than a month after the link was created. You would have to recheck everything every year to be sure that the page hadn't changed nor had any others on the same site.

Finally, there's cost. You can't carry a desktop computer. Laptops and netbooks have a serious distraction issue, they're delicate and they're tough to read because of that vertical screen. iPad shows the most promise but, starting at $499, isn't affordable by every student. With an initiative, we could supply them to every student -- cheaper than a laptop -- and escape the problems with laptops in the classroom, damage, viruses, etc.

In sum, we're close. I can taste it already. We just need a little push.


  1. I'm all in favor of texts but opposed to the new editions published every couple of years,making old ones obsolete, especially when only the cover and a few sentences and problems are changed.

    Also, look at how texts are chosen in Texas to see the bias there.

    On that note, I agree, nothing replaces a book, but maybe I am just old.

  2. I'd argue against your points for Organization, Bias, and Accuracy. Middle School and High School texts are often horribly organized, factually inaccurate, and containing a great deal of bias (in Mathematics you are spared much of this, but look at Science or History texts and you'll see what I mean). See for examples and not much has changed since Feynman's critique

  3. Probably a misuse of vocabulary here and phrasing I'll probably go fix. But to expound here a little ...

    My point is that the book has organized everything into one place, instead of 30 disparate websites for early puritan history, then another 40 for pre-revolutionary Massachusetts and 20 for pre-revolutionary Rhode Island, and, and ...

    Then there's linkrot. I took an online thing this summer and 1 of the links had expired and was serving ads - less than a month after the link was created.

    As for accuracy and bias, I know what the Zinn history is doing and where he was coming from - I can plan around it if I choose or skip certain things or de-emphasize others.

    On random website #332, I would have to read every word of the page I linked to, and skim the others to be sure I can defend it to parents and admin. The book doesn't require that for every page.

    Accuracy matters: Read here:

  4. Ah, I believe that you're talking about a totally different experience than everyone else was. You're thinking of random websites rather than electronic Texts. For instance I used Whitman's online calculus text Visual Calculus and Video Calculus as resources last year when I taught AP Calculus. How is a print version superior to that?

    I'm hardly a PowerPoint fan (refuse to use it in fact). As far as accuracy, I also teach Physics and General Science. I have yet to see a middle school or high school science textbook (below AP level) that was not rife with errors, and I don't just mean oversimplified, I mean completely incorrect. Oh, and the supplemental material seems to be held to an even lower standard than the texts! gives a view of why that is the case.

    Oh, and services like Lulu allow you to make small run hard-copies if you want to do something like lecture notes, lab books, or collected readings and essays. I'm not against texts, I'm against the textbook industry as it currently exists.

  5. Agree with Bill. I can see how a service like Lulu could be a disrupter for the current textbook industry. Thinking of the universities and how more & more prof's are creating their own textbooks. Thinking also of the changes in Canada around licencing and the 10 fold increase in cost coming for course packs.

    Aside: The subject areas I specialize in are Highschool Physics and General science.

    Agree with Curmudgeon that we are close enough to taste it.