Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Sad State of K-12 Math Textbooks.

Here's a disturbing article on the sad state of math textbooks at the K-12 level in the United States.  It's clear that there's a real need for open source, peer reviewed math texts.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012 Open Textbook Prize is offering prizes to open source undergraduate textbook authors.  It's under a program called The Open Textbook Challenge.  While this is a great step in the right direction, more needs to be done to develop assessment and feedback tools for authors and adopters.  Nice job Saylor!

(Update Mon Feb 13 09:21:47 PST 2012:  On closer read, this reward program is only for authors with copyright on existing textbooks who open the texts under a creative commons license.  Still a good program, but not quite the incentive for open-source authors that I initially thought.)

Monday, January 23, 2012

iBooks Author

Apple made a splash recently with its iBooks Author textbook publishing app.  I have not tested the app, but it looks quite nice.  It is possible to create and publish open source textbooks using this platform.  The major drawbacks are that authors must rely on Apple to distribute their books and that readers must own Apple hardware (iPad) to read the books.

There are some fantastic technologies built into the iBooks Author app (e.g. nteractive 3d displays, embedded video).  These are technologies that I think will soon be available in more open platforms.  In particular, I think that HTML5 will soon be able to match these capabilities and with the distinct advantage of being viewable on nearly all computing platforms (e.g. windows, mac, linux).

According to this discussion, typesetting of mathematical formulae is not easy in the new iBooks Author app.  For mathematical and scientific publishing, this is a serious deficiency.  I suspect HTML5 combined with something like MathJax will be an excellent alternative to iBooks Author for open source publishers for at least the near term.

Here's hoping that either Apple bases this tool on open standards and provides open distribution options (hah!) or that some tool that leverages the open tools HTML5 and MathJax becomes a viable publication platform.  I'm optimistic that it will be the latter as most forward thinking authors and publishers are not going to want to be locked into the Apple ecosystem or maintain their texts in completely separate publication systems.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Getting credit (use a free blog site).

So you're in the dean's office for some kind of review.  Maybe you're up for tenure.

Dean:  So what have you done over these past X years?
You:  I wrote a paper that got accepted by Y.  It will appear next year.  Oh!  And I wrote a book!
Dean:  Excellent.  Who's the publisher?
You: Ummmm....
Dean:  How many people are using it?
You:  Errrr...
Dean:  Has it been well-received?  Do people like it?  How good is it?
You:  Errrr...  Ummmm....  aaaaa....

Let's face it.  The majority of academic authors are not publishing books for the retail sales profits.  They do it out of love of subject and the hope that it'll help their academic careers.  Open-source publishing gets your work out there, but once it's out there, you get little, if any, formal feedback (aside from a few emails from grateful users).

Editing, feedback, reviews, and formal assessment are areas that are nearly non-existent in open-source publishing.  Without these mechanisms, dean's have no way to give you credit for your work, adopters have no way of comparing your work to similar commercial works, and you have no way of effectively and efficiently improving your book.

There is a lot of work to be done in strengthening these areas of open-source publishing.  However, there are some tools available right now to help fill some of the gaps.  In fact, an excellent tool is the blogging site you are reading right now.

Use one of the many free blogging sites out there to set up the public face of your open-source publication.  Most of these sites offer commenting systems, lists of followers, RSS notification, etc.  Once you establish your blog as the go-to place for information regarding your text, you give your users a place to offer feedback, show interest and get notified of changes.  In addition, a busy blog site, gives you something to show people to convince them of the worth of your work.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Print Publishing Open-Source Texts

Though I find a well-constructed electronic text far superior to a hardcopy, it is often the case that students and instructors will want a tangible copy of an open-source textbook. There are sites out there that let non-commercial publishers create and distribute hardcopy versions of their texts. My only experience with such sites is

Lulu lets authors create an account, upload a pdf version of their text, and design a hardcopy version for readers to order. You can offer the book for cost, or build in a small profit if you are so inclined. There is a wide-array of different hardcopy formats with different bindings and sizes. I have seen and used a number of Lulu's finished products and they are quite nice--especially given how reasonable their prices are.

Lulu's eCommerce engine takes care of all of the financials. They print and ship the books on-demand.

Full disclosure: I am in no way connected to or compensated by Lulu, it's just the one self-publishing site I am familiar with. I'm sure there are others. If you know of others, leave them in the comments section.