Friday, March 19, 2010


(begin rant)

Two days ago, an email went around the math department here indicating that the higher ups were thinking about changing calculus textbooks, and that there would be a meeting today to talk about it. The meeting was essentially a presentation from a salesman from the textbook company about how great the new textbook is. A few minutes of discussion before-hand, and a comment that those making the change (I'm pretty sure it's a foregone conclusion) would hear our thoughts on the matter. I sorta felt, leaving the meeting, that we'd get a somewhat formal (at least an email) request for comments. Now, a few hours later, I'm guessing we wont. In fact, they probably just signed a contract while the guy was here today.

Sorry, I'm a bit cynical.

Before I go on, I'm probably supposed to make some disclosures. I have at times made (and am currently making) money doing things associated with the Webwork online homework system (admin, library tending). I grew up on Stewart's textbook (used it as a student, and it's what UVA has been using since before I got here). The textbook we are thinking about switching to (like, apparently, everybody else considering switching textbooks) is Briggs and Cochran. At the meeting today, I got a free copy. They also gave us an access code to their online software, MyMathLab.

In all fairness, the new book looks fine. It looks like basically every other recently-released calculus textbook I've looked at (don't take that to mean I've looked at a lot, of for large amounts of time). There are lots of pretty pictures, and apparently the author(s) are big on geometric intuition, which is great. We were also told to be impressed that in the worked examples, each step was given a little explanation. And, gosh, isn't this something amazing, the authors organized the problems at the end of each section carefully. We were told several times that this was not a lower level book, clearly something the publishers are worried about people thinking. It is, as @MitchKeller opined about the projects it has, "a bit hand-holdy".

Oh, and there'll be a new edition along every 3 years.

Of course, the textbook by itself isn't, I expect, what people are all giddy about. The textbook is paired up with MyMathLab. You can make online homework assignments and quizzes. There are little tools for the students to use to get help, like looking at worked examples, looking at a digital copy of the textbook, and probably some others I forgot. Students can also see a little "Study Guide", a sort of summary of what sorts of problems they missed, so they would know what to go back and look at. Oh, and some large collection of those pretty pictures in the text are pretty animations (calculus being about change, we were reminded by the salesman) in the MyMathLab system.

Students have the option to not buy the physical book (at least, in theory, who knows what our goofy school will require), and instead spend somewhat less and just use the e-book in MyMathLab. I seem to recall the e-book being in the $70 range, the first year textbook in the $90s, and the 3 semester book in the $130s, +$6 for the MyMathLab software if you buy the textbook. These numbers might all be before bookstore markup (we were also told to be pleased that the UVA bookstore markup of ~25% is really low... go team!), and we were told that these prices are cheaper than Stewart. The presenter today did this cute thing where he pretended not to already know the price of the books, and looked them up online.

Digital rights management didn't really come up at the meeting today, and I'm ashamed that I didn't bring it up.

Quite honestly, it seems like a not entirely bad thing. Switching textbooks isn't the worst thing we could do. Like I said on twitter after the meeting, though, it feels like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.

If I were given freedom to set up the course however I wanted, I wouldn't require that my students purchase this, or any other, textbook. There are simply too many free resources online for me to justify requiring students to spend that money. If students want to buy the book, or the software (more accurately: access (likely temporary) to it), good for them. Go for it. But if a student would rather use their brother's old textbook, say, or the free ones they find online, that's fine too. If instructors are going to lecture (I generally do, more than I'd like), many students can likely get by on class notes (their own, or a friend's), maybe in combination with some office hours.

Sure, the pictures in the book were nice. And the animations. But there are plenty of calculus animations online (I'm not gonna google that for you). In fact, I could roll my own (and have, happily), and would be delighted to teach students to do so as well. It'd be awesome to talk to students about pictures during class, draw them on the board, and then have them make a digital version of the picture, or an animation (for the ambitious) (and release them all under a CC license, wouldn't that be a fun thing to talk about in class). Heck, why not have the calc students write a book, complete with pictures? Write about the things they got hung up on, and what got them over it. Make a wiki. The instructor likely has access to several textbooks. Use them to put together an outline for the semester. Lecture if you want, or tell them to go see what they can learn online or at the library (then use class time to synthesize what was found). Looking up resources online, you also get to talk about evaluating resources, and how to compare different sources. You can build up a big huge list, and have students rate each source (and share your result with... everybody!).

And as for step-by-step explanations, WolframAlpha jumps to mind, but there are certainly others (I'm not gonna google that for you either). Don't like W|A's solution to a problem (they can be a bit... pedantic)? Have students talk about improvements. This also points out that those problems are pointless anyway. A computer does them more quickly and more accurately, so let it. Let's work on understanding concepts, instead of continuing to test pointless algebra tricks. Use the time that we're not doing mechanical manipulations to come to the geometric understanding slowly, guiding students to discover it for themselves.

Webwork has, for me, done a perfectly adequate job as an online homework system. If UVA doesn't think the problem library is nice enough, of the interface good enough, perhaps they should invest some money in improving it (I know they (at least, Dr. Jeff Holt, through a grant) have to some extent, and also that there is money floating around). Then even more people benefit (webwork is open source), and UVA gets some nice credibility. Webwork can do most of the things the guy today tried to sell us on for online assignments, though it's interface might not be as gosh durn pretty. It will not show students which section from the book they missed problems on (it's not tied to any one book). But I don't really see the problem here. I think it would be a great exercise to teach students how to evaluate for themselves which sections they need to look at.

I know I'm not going on much but youthful optimism and naivety. It's not the first time, nor likely the last. I have no expectation at all that the powers that be will take my thoughts seriously. At least here I can pretend that my thoughts are worthwhile (thanks Blogger). I'm leaving after next year anyway, and have seen no evidence (I suppose I haven't asked) that the younger grad students think like I do. I should probably just let it go (until I'm at another school). [As I was writing this post, I decided to email the math grads, to see if they'd like more flexibility in their teaching.]

All I want is for the department to allow instructors to try something different. Let us not require our students to purchase the (any) textbook. Get out of the publisher's pointless "new edition" cycle

Think about dropping the heavy emphasis on algebra.

(end rant (for now))


George said...

I've read through several of your posts tonight and I've got some general comments.

First, it's really a shame that you weren't allowed to actually participate in the textbook selection. I'm a firm believer in allowing the people that actually teach the course to help choose the text, establish course objectives, ... Like Bill Parcells said, "If I'm going to do the cooking, let me pick out the groceries."

Second, your passion comes through loud and clear. You are definitely coming from a good place. Don't let this episode derail you. I also think that what we teach in intro calculus, and how we teach it, will change over time. We do need leaders to help us find the way.

The biggest obstacle, in my mind, is that there are many who are not able to teach the course in the manner you describe. We seem to do what we already know how to do, and that is hard to change. You seem ready to put in the time and effort required to change the way we teach, but I'm afraid that there are many who will not make that effort.

MML can be a big help in tackling the algebra side of calculus, and that can let you focus more of your class time on conceptual understanding. I use MML at the developmental level, and it has definitely allowed me more time to focus on understanding, critical thinking, and big picture ideas. I'm not sure if you're familiar with Eric Mazur, but it seems like you could use some of his ideas to improve conceptual understanding.

Sorry if this was long and rambling, but your posts really struck a chord with me.

sumidiot said...

@George thanks for your comments. Much appreciated. Especially on a Friday evening :)

Yeah, it would have been nice to have more say earlier on. I still wonder how many other grad students would have jumped in on it though. I'd really really love to get in on establishing the course objects. I asked my advisor about how they were made, and by whom, and he suggested talking to another professor, whom I emailed but haven't heard back from (2 months later).

I hope that what we teach in intro calculus will change. I have little faith that UVA will be leading the way, trying new things. I've heard that smaller schools are the place for such change, and that it's actually happening in some of them.

I absolutely agree that not many others (and, heck, I'm pretty nervous about it myself) sound particularly excited to try something drastically new or different (for UVA anyway). Which is probably the reason I think that change will be slow to come, if at all. Even if the crazy things I try end up working out (no guarantee), I don't expect that they would be easy for others to adopt. It is too easy to just do what we've always done, and are comfortable with. We've all got other commitments.

Thank you for your insight about using MML. It's good to hear your results, especially since they seem pretty positive. I have heard of Eric Mazur, and his writing is on my list of things to read, should I decide to continue down the academic path.

No worries about long and rambling comments. They suit my long and rambling posts well :) Thanks very much for taking your time to read things I've written, and share your feedback. I do appreciate it.