Monday, August 25, 2014
OER, ERP’s, and an Idea
Or, we could just keep publishing rankings and talking about pipelines.
Those theoretical physics articles in the ArXiv? The typesetting of the equations was usually done by the author. It is easier than it looks. If you know what you want to say, you actually just write it like you write a sentence. For examples, pick a random pdf file or two on this page:
Besides, the equations in many intro math books have hardly changed in 50 years in some cases, and even the figures are often the same except for the colors.
That picture of equations in a physics book in that article? It comes from a book published in 1965 with the equations done on a typewriter.
Suppose some enterprising soul bought the rights to textbooks that are currently out of print, and started printing then cheaply. Presumably these would be older texts that lost out to more popular (and maybe better) rivals.
If these cheapo texts were available at a hefty discount off what's charged for the currently popular textbooks, would colleges catering to cash-strapped students be interested?
While technology can mean that some of the mechanical parts of the process are hugely streamlined, were still stuck with the reality that putting together useful teaching materials is just incredibly labour-intensive.
As far as I'm aware, he hasn't taken the step of making a cheap print version available. I actually use the book as a refresher in a graduate course. I'm not going to have my graduate students pay (at least not much) for a sophomore-level book to supplement the graduate-level materials, but it's good to be able to provide them with a free book to refresh themselves on the fundamentals.
I mean, we're talking about $10-30 for a textbook (new) instead of $100-300. And the Dover books depreciate far less, too.
The one problem with Dover is they have few texts that are more introductory--their mathematics section, for example, starts at Calculus and goes from there.
There's also some preexistent free books (see http://math.ucr.edu/home/baez/books.html for example) floating around.
I think the greater problem is that while these books are there, there's no will to ask professors to use them. If, for example, a bunch of colleges had a policy that required professors to keep their book costs below ~$50 per class (perhaps making them have to ask for a waiver for pricier options, having to argue the pedagogical requirement for doing so) then perhaps we might see some real motion in that direction (and some complaining faculty, but what else is new?).
An enrollment management system (especially one that it integrated with other systems, such as fin-aid and course management) is almost as sophisticated as an airline's reservation system.
Realistically, you also need someone who has some release time to curate and edit this thing for each course or course series on an ongoing basis, particularly for the first five to ten years. In math, at least, I'd expect to find a ton of errors the first year any page or chapter is used and probably an exponential decrease each year that nobody does a major re-write on that page but does go through and fix the errors that have been found so far. Once you had the content more or less stabilized and corrected the errors relentlessly for five or ten years, you're probably still going to need someone to babysit it somewhat, but that might even be a small enough task to count as someone's service rather than requiring a course release.
I base this on the month I spent writing daily "explain it like a book would, but more approachably and then here are some problems" worksheets from scratch for a high school geometry course while a long term sub at an alternative school. The school did not give students textbooks "because they would just lose them and they refuse to do homework anyway", and the worksheets I'd been left by their regular teacher for the rest of the year were all handwritten problem sheets with no notes on how to do the problems or what I should teach them before handing any given sheet out (they did tend to have answer keys, also handwritten, and some with an answer crossed out and another added in its place, which didn't reassure me as to the quality of the overall keys). I eventually decided it would be less work to just work backwards from the things they were supposed to be able to do by the end of the term according to the course standards and write my own worksheets that actually explained things and on which I knew which things were being taught which day. Anyway, I ended up with a goofy typo probably every other day, which was fine because the students knew I was writing these things myself and if I didn't catch them they would. I suspect if I'd had that as a regular job I would have done quite a bit of revising on several of them the next year, creating more typos in the process, but that it would have settled down by the third or fourth year, with most changes being typo-fixing. That's where I get the 5 or 10 years to stability figure from.
Fortunately, there are some great alternate options out there. For my calculus course, I could choose from
(a) a free text developed at a SLAC:
(b) a free, somewhat older, text made available by MIT OpenCourseware
(c) a low-cost ($35) option developed by the Math Association of America
Any of these are useful models for other disciplines...
Instead I have to convince my entire department, and my dean, that open textbooks are an acceptable alternative. In a best-case scenario open textbooks are one year away from improving my students' lives. In a worst case scenario I don't even know how far away they are.
Yes, I can imagine how bad the average can be, because I have refereed papers as well, but my point was that assertions about the difficulty of "typesetting" math are based on ignorance. I hit a couple of papers at random on that page, thinking about posting one, and the first one I clicked had 148 pages and 551 non-trivial equations! (1408.5660) Someone wrote all of that in LaTex for the heck of it. Writing the equations in a calculus book is trivial by comparison.
It is a challenge to copy edit and review a book, but no different than the challenge of reviewing (let alone test driving) a new textbook. There are some pretty lame for-profit books out there, while there are some VERY nice OER books available, some being used at my college.
I haven't found any for the class I teach, but could some of us revise one of the algebra-based physics books to do an adequate job of introducing calculus-based physics? I think so. Heck, there is an entire freshman E+M book that is copyright free (vol 2 of the berkeley physics series) because NSF paid for it. Not a bad place to start. Better than waiting for copyrights to expire or hoping prices come down.
Free, backed by a foundation, and taking advantage of a tablet platform to include models, animations, and video as well as pictures?
Could a similar approach work for ERP systems? Would it be possible to do without them, or at least to use simpler ones with less functionality? I'm sure much of what they do can be done manually -- that certainly holds for the ways I interact with them. How did previous generations handle things like scheduling and records? Maybe it's not necessary to always be innovating and changing everything -- sometimes change is for the better, but sometimes it is for the worse. I found teaching easier before I had to use Blackboard and the like.