With online learning, role of textbooks evolves

Professor Ghrist's projects include a PDF textbook and an updatable 'wiki-based text'

· November 7, 2012, 7:10 pm

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Changes in how students take classes could also mean changes in how they prepare for them. With the increasing availability of online courses, the role of textbooks is evolving.

The explosion of open online courses now affords students across the globe free access to classes.

Often, these courses don’t have required texts and post recommended reading lists instead. Some professors provide access to readings or don’t use textbooks at all.

For example, math professor Robert Ghrist—who’s teaching a Coursera calculus course in January—is providing all material to his students free of charge and will not be using the math texts used by the University.

Because many online users are unable to purchase expensive textbooks, Ghrist decided against using textbooks altogether. “I don’t know too many people for whom buying a $200 textbook is not a burden. I’m not going to ask people … to shell out that kind of money,” he said.

Ghrist added that students do not often use their textbooks, calling them “unloved and unread.”

Department of Pediatrics professor Paul Offit, who teaches a Coursera course on vaccines, said that changes in technology have made books in general more expensive.

“It used to be a book would be published in hardcover then it’d come out in paperback for less,” he said. “Now it comes out immediately on Kindle so it’s basically killed the paperback business.”

Yet, for some publishers, the rise in open courses has prompted speculation of higher sales.

Since enrollment in these courses often see numbers in the thousands, students who choose to purchase recommended textbooks could significantly increase profits for publishers.

In addition, while students have been known to access textbooks and other academic texts for free through torrents and document-sharing websites, instructors are not allowed to post copyrighted content without permission of the publisher.

Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller anticipates the structure of textbooks to change in response to open online classes. “I think some material is still much better read than viewed in a video format, but I would expect textbooks to become much more flexible, adaptive and interactive,” she said in an email.

Although Ghrist acknowledges some benefits to having textbooks, such as the practice questions they provide, he believes these benefits could be addressed through other mediums.

Ghrist has several projects underway that could circumvent the need for textbooks altogether. One project is a free calculus book available in PDF format. The 45-page book, titled “The Funny Little Calculus Text” is available on his website.

The second project, a “wiki-based text,” has yet to be made available to the public. This new type of text would allow students to update material online as they see fit.

Ghrist hopes to launch the wiki with his class in January but anticipates it taking a couple of years to become a viable textbook replacement. “Eventually I would like to wean Penn’s calculus course off the required textbook,” he said.

“The only way this works is if people step up to the plate and we get some good crowdsourcing going on.”

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