Posts tagged ‘textbooks’

What defines quality of an open-education book?

I’m dubious about open-education resources, because I see that the capitalist system does encourage authors to produce books that teachers want and that work for students (books don’t remain adopted if students hate them).  I’m willing to believe the claim below that “free, high-quality educational materials are available” but I’d like to know the definition of “high-quality.”  Who measures the quality of open-education resources?  By what definition can we claim that OpenStax books are high-quality?

I’m working on an answer to this question for the ebooks we’re working on.  While I am an author of textbooks with commercial publishers, I am also writing books for the Runestone Interactive site.  For those books, we are developing assessments to measure learning pre/post, and we are measuring retention and student engagement.  I hope to have evidence to support the claim that our books are high-quality.

What kinds of processes are open-education resource providers using to make a claim about high-quality?

“Although a growing number of free, high-quality educational materials are available, many instructors and academic leaders are uncertain about how to begin taking advantage of these resources,” said David Harris, editor-in-chief of OpenStax College.

With a combination of high-quality content and a well-supported pathway to OER adoption, OpenStax College and Lumen Learning expect to achieve significant textbook cost savings at both two- and four-year colleges and universities nationwide.

via Open-education partners hope to save students $10 million by 2015.

February 21, 2014 at 1:42 am 1 comment

Yup, That’s What CS Textbooks Are Like

Loved this cartoon I found from GasStationsWithoutPumps which is a reference to Abstruse Goose. Yes, CS textbooks do this.

July 4, 2012 at 6:00 am 6 comments

Should anyone write an iBooks textbook?

This essay is another take on Alfred Thompson’s comment in my blog post on iBooks Author — is it a good thing that iBooks Author makes it possible for anyone to write a textbook?  This essayist is pointing out that a good textbook requires drawing upon principles of instructional design that few people learn.  It may be that few textbook authors know those principles or use them, so the technology isn’t making things worse or better.

The idea that instructors are somehow incapable of violating basic instructional design principles is naive.  What percentage of our nationwide faculty has heard of the split-attention effect, redundancy principle, contiguity principle, cognitive flexibility, or even cognitive load?  Now, instructors are expected to be subject matter experts and instructional designers. The two are not synonymous, and the results can be detrimental to learning. iBooks Author is giving creative license to everyone, with or without instructional design experience.

via Essay: Do Apple’s design tools make it too easy to create textbooks and courses? | Inside Higher Ed.

March 1, 2012 at 7:23 am 4 comments

Programming is so important that I need it in 3 days

Peter Norvig considers why there are so many books on “Learning programming in 3 days” (or 21 days, or some other small number of days).  He does a good job of explaining why we should be thinking in terms of years, not days. I am most interested in his analysis of why people want to learn programming so quickly.  Is it because programming should be that easy?  Or is it that it’s so valuable that people want the skill immediately?

But if it is so valuable, why do they expect that skill in so little time?  Maybe it’s because they understand it so little.  I’ll bet that 90% of all people have no idea at all of what it means to program a computer.  Maybe they expect it to be a subset of natural communication–since they’re already good at talking with people, so it should be like talking to people but only using a small subset of particularly geeky words.

Norvig is right — there’s something deep and interesting in why there are so many books about learning programming so quickly.

The conclusion is that either people are in a big rush to learn about computers, or that computers are somehow fabulously easier to learn than anything else. There are no books on how to learn Beethoven, or Quantum Physics, or even Dog Grooming in a few days. Felleisen et al. give a nod to this trend in their book How to Design Programs, when they say “Bad programming is easy. Idiots can learn it in 21 days, even if they are dummies.

via Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years.

June 11, 2011 at 10:07 am 4 comments

Blown to Bits: A good book, not as a sole APCS book

At the last commission and advisory group meeting developing the new Advanced Placement course Computer Science: Principles, I heard a lot about the book Blown to Bits by Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis. The book is all about the pervasive digital technology and how that influences our lives, from privacy, to cryptography, to search engines, and to intellectual property. The book is made available for free at their website, which makes it all the more attractive for use in the CS:Principles pilots. Several have already used it as a source for “readings.” It’s the only book I heard about. I was strongly encouraged to read it.

I finally got a chance to start it, and am really excited about it. It is an excellent example of the popular press CS paperbacks to which I was referring in a previous blog post. It’s filled with strong computer science ideas, which is not surprising since that one of the authors is Hal Abelson, as in Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs Abelson. He knows his CS, and why it’s relevant. The book relates important CS ideas to readers’ daily lives. The book is fun to read. It’s exactly what I would like to see more of, a particular slant on some strong CS, made accessible to contribute to the intellectual life of everyday people.

However, I am not comfortable recommending this to anyone for use in CS:Principles, at least as a sole source. As the authors say in the Preface:

This book emerged from a general education course we have taught at Harvard, but it is not a textbook…We aim to entertain you at the same time as we provoke your thinking…We offer some strong opinions in this book.

I agree that this book is not a textbook. The book offers opinions–statements that the authors believe are true, but are still not accepted as fact. I like the idea of including controversy in a College-level course. I am not okay with presenting a controversial opinion as fact. I prefer that the teacher offer dissenting views.

Here’s one concrete example: While I am no expert in information security and privacy, I don’t buy the argument that they’re making about security and privacy. They refer to the “post-privacy” world, and they subtitle a chapter “Privacy Lost, Privacy Abandoned.” They say, “We then turn to an analysis of how we have lost our privacy, or simply abandoned it.” The claim that privacy is lost surprised me. Sure, I understand the argument that most anything in digital form can be accessed somehow. I understand that everything I do in email or on Facebook could be found and disseminated widely on the Internet. I’ll bet that every reader of this blog, even if not my “friend,” could get my current Facebook status message within 30 minutes and <10 email messages. But does that really mean that privacy is "lost"? What about walking around? What about doing things on paper?

They argue that there are camera everywhere. They argue that even paper is no longer private. Handwriting is recognizable. Typewriters leave unique signatures. And it’s even possible to track the source of a printout from a piece of paper to a particular printer. Color printers actually encode the printer’s serial number on every page that they print.

Now waitaminute. Just because it’s possible to get a search warrant for surveillance cameras and to do forensic analysis does not mean that everything I do in person and on paper can be discovered and made public the same way as digital information. Last week, I was in New York City for the NCWIT Summit. Each morning, I walked to a different restaurant in Manhattan, had breakfast, and paid cash. I simply do not believe that where I had breakfast is public, not private. It’s not the same as my current Facebook status message is.

That’s just one example. The book has lots of other questionable claims, like “Bits move faster than thought.” (Exactly how do you measure that?) Making questionable claims doesn’t bother me as a book — I value the arguments for the claims, even if I disagree with them. I highly recommend the book even with claims about privacy that I don’t agree with. But that’s different than recommending it for a high school class that we hope will be taught to tens of thousands of students. I would recommend it, if it was one of several other readings that could then be contrasted with each other. Having several readings of this caliber would make for a really great class!

What do we want from a textbook, or for a good readings source for a book? For me, a textbook should be mostly be concerned with concepts that are generally accepted as true by a community. A readings book can offer opinions. Particularly in lower-level classes, I want to offer a diversity of opinions. I love collected readings books, like the New Media Reader. That’s a great example of providing a variety of opinions under one cover for one price. Maybe we need something like that for CS:Principles. But just Blown to Bits? I’m worried that that’s too one-sided.

June 8, 2011 at 8:43 am 3 comments

In Toronto, Talking About CS Ed and CS4All

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Toronto, Ontario.  (This year, it seems like I can’t stay in the US for too long.)  I’m visiting the University of Toronto for the next couple of days.

Tomorrow, I’m giving an informal talk on my view of the State of CS Education Research.  I’m excited about this talk.  It’s not a well-practiced, well-groomed talk, e.g., it has the most slides with just bulleted text of any talk I’ve given in years.  They scheduled a couple hour block for me to tell stories of my recent students’ work, and about the work that I want to do next, which is not something I do in my standard DLS/keynote talk.  For you who read this blog, you already know what I’m going to say — it’s about my students’ work, about worked examples and phonics, and about why textbooks are bad for CS Ed, and why distance education is important for CS10K.

On Tuesday, I’ll give my talk on “Meeting Everyone’s Need for Computing” where I’ll argue that teaching everyone on campus about computer science is an old but good idea.  I’ll update a version of the talk that I gave in Jinan — various versions of the talk are at if you’re interested.

When I get back (somewhere in the boundary of very late Tuesday and very early Wednesday), I’ll be recovering, and then it’ll be the American Thanksgiving holiday.  (I understand Toronto had its “Santa Claus Parade” this morning, so it’s officially already the Christmas season here.)  I expect to spend less time blogging this week than usual.  Happy Thanksgiving!


November 21, 2010 at 10:01 pm Leave a comment

Finding hope in a book-less world

I also finished the Smithsonian magazine 40th anniversary issue on the way back from China.  (It’s a REALLY long trip.)  There were three pieces that I think speak to each other, to point to danger in a book-less world, and a possible reason to have hope.

Kevin Kelly explicitly predicts the end of the book over the next 40 years, and describes how the book-less world will be different:

“In books we find a revealed truth; on the screen we assemble our truth from pieces. On networked screens everything is linked to everything else. The status of a new creation is determined not by the rating given to it by critics but by the degree to which is linked to the rest of the world.”

Vint Cerf’s interview points out (one of) the dangers of this future world:

“[The Web is] a little bit like television. When it arrived there were many expectations that it would improve education and everything else. But what we discovered is there’s a finite amount of quality in the universe, and when there are more channels it has to be cut up into smaller and smaller amounts until finally, every channel delivers close to zero quality, and that’s where we are today, with a few exceptions.”

So Kelly is saying that students won’t read to learn truth from a master — they’ll construct their own truth out of the wide range of what has been written.  And Cerf is saying, “And there’s almost nothing good out there.”  When I read the two of these pieces, I felt dismayed.  It feels like Meno’s paradox. How can you find truth, if you don’t know the truth already?  And isn’t it all the more harder if there’s no or little truth out there to work from?

The hope comes from considering Cerf’s caveat “with a few exceptions.”  There’s something out there.  The student must be diligent in finding it and careful in evaluating it.  The student needs a critical eye.  Maybe that’s actually a huge advantage over where we are today, where students tend to memorize more and sense-make less.

Pre-Web, most people in the United States got their news from only one source.  Even today, how many people get most of their news and viewpoints from Fox News?  How many teachers teach using only one textbook or resource, and how many students use only a single source for learning a given curricular topic?  (And how does that contrast with the number of sources they use when they care about the topic?)  In contrast, how many scientists or doctors use only a single source for all their decisions?

It’s a positive direction for people to learn to work to gather information, to have to evaluate it, and to keep going until they come to a personal understanding.  As teachers, we’ll have to help students learn these skills.

I particularly liked the interview with Sabiha Al Khemir, an expert on Islamic art.  I thought that her comments encouraged this style of thinking, to rely less on the expert, and more on the individual student’s effort at assembling “small” pieces at the “intimate” level:

“Making that effort and wanting to find out is part of the duty of each one of us. Most Islamic art is not even signed; most is anonymous. The concept of a masterpiece is not the same as in the West. The concept of the artist is not the same. This is not art that was produced to be hung on the walls. The scale is much smaller, which calls for an intimate relationship. Basically, it is calling you to come close and look, to accept that it is different and try to understand that even though it’s small, it might have something to say. Maybe it’s whispering. Maybe you need to get closer.”

November 11, 2010 at 9:49 am 9 comments

Open Textbooks Aren’t Happening Yet

An activist group has called for open textbooks to reduce student costs, but points out that there are few books available.  The report doesn’t address the question of who will write open textbooks and why.

Altogether, that means that if all of a student’s professors adopted an open text, that student would spend an average of 80 percent less than he or she currently does on textbooks, according to the group’s report.

That scenario is unrealistic right now. While it has seen a bump in adoption this year, Flat World still offers only about 20 titles. And the open-textbook landscape beyond Flat World’s modest catalog is a bit of a wild west. An informal study released earlier this year, commissioned by Student PIRGs and carried out by the University of California at Berkeley, found that faculty members believed “there were no high-quality and reliable open textbooks currently available in their subjects that were comparable to the print/traditional textbooks they used.”

“It is clear,” the Berkeley authors continued, “that there are many, many fields and subfields with no viable and acceptable open textbooks at this time.”

via News: A Call for Open Textbooks – Inside Higher Ed.

October 1, 2010 at 8:59 am 3 comments

All-Digital Publisher Fails

Rice University Press switched in 2006 to all-digital publishing through Connexions.  While that reduced costs, not enough, and RUP has just been shut down.  Doesn’t bode well for the economic model of all-digital publishing.

Rice University Press is being shut down next month, ending an experiment in an all-digital model of scholarly publishing. While university officials said that they needed to make a difficult economic decision to end the operation, they acted against the recommendations of an outside review team that had urged Rice to bolster its support for the publishing operations.

Some supporters, in fact, are in discussions about raising private support to continue the press as a scholarly publishing outfit that might not be attached to any single university.

Many supporters of academic publishing had high hopes for the Rice project, which was launched in 2006 with the goal of merging the quality and rigor of scholarly peer review with the convenience and low cost of digital publishing. The demise of the project led to immediate speculation about whether the Rice experience suggested difficulties for the economic model or if other factors may have been decisive.

via News: Abandoning an Experiment – Inside Higher Ed.

August 20, 2010 at 2:25 pm 3 comments

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 –

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  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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