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Electronic textbook—what about a problem strategy guide?

January 6, 2012

This week, I led a workshop for our science department on electronic assessment and textbooks. I gave a brief overview of the current quickly changing landscape of electronic texts (you can see the list of resources I put together here). As part of this workshop, the teachers spit up in divisions (physics, bio, chem) and then discussed how each division might approach electronic texts next year, when the high school will be 1:1.

First, a note on electronic texts. For the most part, it’s a sad state of affairs. Publishers are still trying to squeeze out huge margins by basically creating secure, often difficult to use and not interactive texts that they “rent” to students for 1/2 to 3/4 of the price of a regular text, often more than $100 (the days of $100 textbooks are long gone—they’re now $150-$200 textbooks).

There is hope. Inkling is a great startup that is trying to put together some truly interactive texts on the iPad, E.O. Wilson is leading a charge to produce an electronic text that promises to be incredible, and most recently Nature publishing just announced what looks to be an amazing introductory biology e-text that they will sell to students for a very reasonable $50.

Still, in our 9th grade physics classes, we find that teachers barely use the textbook at all, if they even have one (I don’t—I adapt Kelly O’Shea’s excellent modeling materials). Those physics teachers that do use texts mostly just use them as a problem bank. One of my colleagues became very intrigued by the idea of having students write their own text collaboratively, and we ended up tweaking this idea a bit to have students construct a problem stagey guide, rather than a full-out text.

Here’s the basic idea. Our electronic text would consist of the teacher putting a number of problems into a wiki/blog/google doc. Students would then be assigned to write up a solution to a problem, and other students would comment on that strategy. Ideally, it would be possible to easily show and compare alternative solutions to the problem as well. Doing all of this electronically also allows us to greatly expand what constitutes a problem—since we could now ask students to make measurements from a video, a simulation, or to analyze a dataset. Problems could be also be tagged and commented upon.

I such an approach could also be particularly advantageous for teachers who use Webassign, since a major concern is that students often don’t really learn to write out solutions to problems, and having them type up a solution might help them to practice this skill.

So right now I’m trying to figure out the right platform for such an endeavor. Here are the requirements I can think of at the moment:

  • Ability to easily typeset equations (simple LaTeX input a +)
  • Ability to easily add images and video
  • Robost ability to comment of the problems in particular locations, not just at end of document—(threading comments a +)
  • wish: some tabbed navigation to allow one to tab to different approaches to solving the problem.

The first two platforms that come immediately to mind are a wiki and google docs. So far, I’ve tested out google docs, and it does well on all the criteria (the equation editor is a bit funky and inserting, drawing on images is a bit painful), but it doesn’t support any sort of tabbed navigation. It’s been a while since I’ve really tried to explore the feature set of various wikis, so that will be my next step.

In the meantime, I’d love any feedback you have on this idea or suggestions for platforms to check out.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 7, 2012 10:22 am

    I’ve tried the electronic text thing before (kids couldn’t read it on the bus on the way to games, etc., and printed huge amounts of it in the library) and the wiki thing before (the markup – especially equations – was a significant learning curve and distractor, and I didn’t want to devote the huge amount of time necessary to get them to assimilate a good tone for it. You’d think that, with the amount of wikipedia they read, they’d be able to replicate a sensible structure and appropriate tone, but it didn’t work out that way (at least with the amount of class time I was willing to devote to it). Adding diagrams was a significant technological problem, which was the real death blow in my eyes.

    • January 7, 2012 9:18 pm

      I think you’re right on a lot of fronts. Writing a full text would seem to be a fruitless exercise. But I do think the idea of creating a sort of online solution strategy guide could be helpful. I hadn’t thought about the issues with taking stuff on the bus—that’s a good point. Google docs makes some of the technical issues you mention a bit better, but it’s got it’s own hangups as well. We’re going to experiment a bit with trying to develop a platform and structure in our PLC, and I’ll report back on our progress.

  2. January 10, 2012 7:46 am

    Sorry I don’t have more time to give a more thorough response, but, as an fyi, you can insert LaTeX code into the equation editor for google docs.

  3. January 11, 2012 7:16 am

    The latest version od the equation editor MathType has a Google Docs compatibility built in. I know the full version costs, but when we pursued a site licence it was very reasonable (which is often not the case for a one to one environment). I think that after 30 days it reverts to a trial version that has all the symbols that you would need for an algebra based physics course and is still Google Docs compatible.

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