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Old 12-11-2006, 06:11 PM   #1
Bob Russell
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Sun's McNealy working on open source textbooks

"'Math hasn't changed since Isaac Newton,' declares Scott McNealy. So why, he asks, is California paying some $400 million annually to 'update' grade-school textbooks?"

That's some of the motivation from Scott McNealy that Forbes has reported on recently. It turns out that there is a lot of money being made from textbooks that just might not be really adding any value to what a global community effort can do. In fact, the community effort might turn out to be better and more timely, and Scott McNealy is just the sort of individual that might be able to make it a success.

But it turns out that the future of textbooks is also somewhat in the hands of world governments. According to the Booksellers Association Blog, "the Chinese government plans to issue 165 million students with ebook readers and in doing so obviate the need to buy textbooks." Furthermore, "Libya could now become the first country to provide every school-age child with a laptop computer and internet connection." This is through the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) intiative, which "has also reached tentative purchase agreements with Argentina, Brazil, Nigeria and Thailand."

As we develop and learn how to do open source textbooks, and as e-book and laptop technology advanced, it is hard to argue that paper books will dominate in the future of the classroom. Paper may not be completely eliminated, but it certainly looks like it will have to share the spotlight with e-books.
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Old 12-11-2006, 08:33 PM   #2
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This is an excellent idea. I'm not sure this would work well internationally with anything other than "hard" science or technical topics such as math, chemistry, physics, etc at the non-college level. Everything else (especially history or civics) will probably have to be specific to a nation's beliefs/background.

I suppose you could always have development forks to allow for individual country requirements.
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Old 12-11-2006, 09:20 PM   #3
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Here in Virginia each county and city selects its own texts from an approved list. There is always a great debate over the science and math text books (even more so than the debates about the history and English texts.) For the science texts the creation issue is still alive and hotly debated. In the math area there is the constant battle over methods of instruction -- math, new math, new-new math, etc. The last reason given for a change in the elementary school math books was that the word problems were out of touch with the current world -- "A train leaves Boston ...." Many were also considered to be sexist and stereotyping.

I think the first major area for most US schools will be in the English and lit classes as many (if not most) of the required reading lists are already available in gutenberg and manybooks.

The cost of textbooks is skyhigh due to the "limited" distribution they have. Etexts answer this problem. I have heard of a school system that requires high school students to leave THE textbook in the desk as all classes must share the same book since there is not enough money to buy a copy for all of the students taking the course.

I remember in college that the cost of the textbooks was more than I paid the school to take the courses.
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Old 12-11-2006, 10:07 PM   #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RWood
were out of touch with the current world -- "A train leaves Boston ...."
Yes I have seen the "calculate the lenght of an spiral" evolve from the original (pure math, XVIIIth century textbooks) to a spiral in a record and then to the lengh of tape. Now with the MP3, they will be forced to be back to the original
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Old 12-12-2006, 04:04 AM   #5
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Can't they just suspend their context-checker and learn the underlying maths?
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Old 12-12-2006, 08:36 AM   #6
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RWood
The last reason given for a change in the elementary school math books was that the word problems were out of touch with the current world -- "A train leaves Boston ...."
I think someone was just looking for an excuse to make a sale. Last I checked, there were still trains running to and from Boston.

Besides, isn't it ironic that in Social Studies we try to teach kids about other cultures and times, but heaven forbid that a math problem should be something they don't see every day! When I was a kid, I think it would have been cool to try to figure out if the trajectory of the rock thrown from a catapult would allow it to clear the castle wall, even if that wasn't an everyday sight in my neighborhood.

Back on-topic, I wonder if it's really going to save that much money, given that e-book publishers charge almost as much for an e-book as for the paper version. (The last time I checked, Crichton's "State of Fear", for example, was $7.95 for paper, $7.45 for e-book.) Some day the e-book publishers will wise-up and discover that they could sell tons--or should I say gigabytes--of e-books if they would cut the price. The first one who does that will get rich.

Think about it. Paperbacks sell for about 1/3 the price of the hardcover version. If e-books sold for 1/3 the price of the paperback, you'd see a massive increase in sales, with no printing, storage or shipping costs. And if those were e-textbooks, entire school systems would be jumping on-board.

Last edited by DTM; 12-12-2006 at 02:18 PM. Reason: Typo
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Old 12-12-2006, 11:03 AM   #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Snappy!
Can't they just suspend their context-checker and learn the underlying maths?
We learn math better if it's presented in a context. (That's what I'm earning my doctorate in, so I feel somewhat qualified to comment on this.) That being said, as someone else has pointed out, trains DO still leave Boston on a regular basis. Perhaps the Virginia textbook committee didn't like the reference to Boston.

A huge advantage to eBooks is that they could be generated using a content management system that could automatically select different content based on the intended audience. However, I think it would be highly valuable if students still had access to the rest of the related content, as well. The committee may assume that the students wouldn't be interested in the ballista-stone-castle wall problem, for example, when in fact a fair number of students might find that the perfect way to learn elementary calculus.

One of the key issues in textbook creation/selection, unfortunately, is control: who is controlling what the students will study and learn? On the positive side, this can be used to try to ensure that the students have high-quality explanations and examples to learn from. On the less positive side, this control can also be used to try to limit the ideas the students are exposed to.

Whether the books are eBooks or pBooks doesn't really affect this issue of control directly, though it may be easier for students to get around limitations placed in their textbooks, if they are interested, when the content is available as eBooks. But this issue of control is a big part of what makes k-12 textbooks ridiculously expensive. The market is huge, but it is deliberately fragmented into tiny micro-markets, each with their own unique "requirements." Publishers capitalize on this, charging each state (or country, or whatever) for the full editorial process to customize a textbook to those requirements (and many of the textbooks created this way are pretty terrible, based on what I've seen in my own kids' texts).

Working from open-source books, e.g. WikiBooks (a WikiMedia project) could, in theory, allow the school textbook committee to select portions of textbooks which meet their requirements, using a content management utility to assemble the final books into an eBook format of their choosing. This could drastically reduce the cost of the books, yes, but I'm not sure a textbook committee would be willing to make the selections themselves (they would probably hire a consultant to do it, which would still be costly) and I'm also not sure the content would be any higher in quality than what's available now.

Not to be negative on the whole idea, or anything -- I still think this would be a huge improvement over my daughters having to carry around 40-50 lb of books every day!
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Old 12-12-2006, 01:40 PM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by DTM
Some day the e-book publishers will wise-up and discover that they could sell tons--or should I say gigabytes--of e-books if they would cut the price.
Don't I wish...

But seriously, folks, Yes, e-texts should be available to everyone... especially those kids who I see laboring under the weight of backpacks half their size. Of course, the textbook publishers are going to scream at the radically-altered market they'll have to endure, and we'll likely see established publishers going belly-up, and upstart publishers trying to fill their shoes. It'll be quite the mashup.

(Sound familiar?)

Personally, I wish McNealy luck. I just wish he hadn't suggested that there have been no mathematical breakthroughs since Newton...
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Old 12-12-2006, 02:03 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Steve Jordan
Personally, I wish McNealy luck. I just wish he hadn't suggested that there have been no mathematical breakthroughs since Newton...
As someone who worked under McNealy at Sun for 11 years, I can safely say that he's prone to tossing deliberately provocative statements out there without worrying too much about 100% accuracy. I assume he means well, but sometimes I wish he were a little more thoughtful about some of the things he says.

Regarding changes in mathematics -- and especially mathematics education-- since Newton, one could do worse than to review the work done by the University of Chicago in their "Everyday Math" program: http://everydaymath.uchicago.edu/educators/index.shtml

There has been a lot of change in this area over the past few decades.
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