Archive for August 1, 2010

Are all textbooks created equal?

An interesting piece in this morning’s NYTimes that I’ve been thinking about all morning (since Alan kindly sent me the link):

Mr. McNealy, the fiery co-founder and former chief executive of Sun Microsystems, shuns basic math textbooks as bloated monstrosities: their price keeps rising while the core information inside of them stays the same.

“Ten plus 10 has been 20 for a long time,” Mr. McNealy says.

Early this year, Oracle, the database software maker, acquired Sun for $7.4 billion, leaving Mr. McNealy without a job. He has since decided to aim his energy and some money at Curriki, an online hub for free textbooks and other course material that he spearheaded six years ago.

via Ping – In School Systems, Slow Progress for Open-Source Textbooks – NYTimes.com.

I’m really glad that school districts are finding ways to incorporate open-source textbooks.  That alternate path should exist, and it’s disappointing that it’s taking school districts so long to work that through their system.

I do have concerns and questions about open-source textbooks.  Some of them are obviously biased by my being a for-profit textbook author.  Others are questions that I have as a computing education researcher.

  • Quality process? Commercial publishers have a long series of checks over the quality of their textbooks, from the prospectus, to external reviewers, to copyeditors.  While there can be arguments about the effectiveness of the process (e.g., are professors-as-reviewers really our best prediction of the quality of the product, as measured in student learning?), there is a process.  I am sure that open-source textbooks can construct a similar process, but without the same teeth.  Commercial publishers hold a contract and royalty checks as the carrot at the end of the process.  If an author doesn’t like the result of an open-source textbook quality check, does he just release the book anyway on his own?  I worry about insuring quality for millions of schoolchildren when the track record of most open-source software projects is that they tend to care about the usability of a handful of expert users, rather than making sure that everyone can use it.  That won’t work with schools.
  • Does quality matter? “Ten plus ten has been 20 for a long time,” says McNealy.  Is that all there is?  Does the quality of the textbook matter at all for the student learning, or are all textbooks essentially the same — as long as the facts are presented and the exercise opportunities are there, the learning difference is insignificant?  As an author, I hope that the effort I put into exposition and interesting examples matters, but as a researcher, I know that often such fluff distracts from learning rather than enhances it.  I know that there are textbooks that stood out for me as a student and do now as a teacher, like Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs and How to Design Programs.  Will such notable, standout textbooks arise from an open-source process?  (Why haven’t they so-far?)
  • Can innovation arise from an open-source process? Some of those textbooks that so stand-out for me are because they are innovative, a markedly new approach, regardless of quality.  I’m no expert, but my sense as a computing user and a computer science professor is that open-source software tends to copy others’ innovations rather than be innovative itself.  I got the chance to spend several hours with Andrew Tanenbaum once, the grandfather of Linux.  He told me in some detail about how Linux was derivative, lacking innovation, and lacking good design choices. I note that GIMP is often referred to as “open source Photoshop,” and I rarely hear about features of GIMP that designers wish Adobe would adopt into Photoshop. Will open source textbooks fare better?  Will the next innovations in textbooks (because we certainly need them!) arise from an open-source effort?  I am skeptical that the economics will work.  Innovations arise from people who know their stuff really well (see the ongoing discussion about creativity on an earlier blog post).  People who know their stuff well get paid for that.  Might they also volunteer time in their area of expertise, when they might get paid for that time?  Maybe.
  • Is the innovation in the approach or the textbook? While there is a lot of evidence that Media Computation improves on school’s “traditional” approach (for what that’s worth, since we don’t have a strong measure of what “traditional” means across schools), I can’t say that that’s because Barb and I wrote such great textbooks.  It could be the approach (e.g., the examples, the focus on a motivating context, the libraries and tools), which some schools are adopting (without the textbooks) by grabbing the free materials from MediaComputation.org.  Do we need the innovation in the approach or in the textbook?  Will it work if someone pays for the innovative approach development, while the book might be free?  That’s the approach that Deepak Kumar and colleagues took with the IPRE textbook.  Microsoft paid for the development of the IPRE robotics approach, with NSF sustaining the effort, but the textbook is free.  Does this result in the quality (in terms of student learning and motivation) that we want?  Does it result in enough innovation to improve computing education?
  • Sustainable? Perhaps my biggest concern about the open-source textbook model is sustainability.  Who makes sure that material gets freshened up regularly and new editions come out?  Maybe McNealy is right, and once you show that 10+10=20, you’re done, and the examples don’t need to be updated, the language stays the same, and no mistakes are ever discovered.  Commercial enterprises offer an incentive to sustain effort, to keep making things better, and economics shows that people respond to incentives. Open-source textbooks offer an opportunity to serve and to have impact, which is certainly important.  Is it enough of an incentive to keep the effort going?  It would be great if it was enough, but I’m skeptical.

August 1, 2010 at 11:55 am 20 comments


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