Monday, September 16, 2013

Replacing Textbooks with MOOCs

John Hawks read the article that I discussed in an earlier post [On the High Price of Textbooks]. he outlines his solution to the high cost of textbooks [Textbook troubles].
I'm building the groundwork for a project that will do something about this, at least in the area of biological anthropology. I've been following stories like this for years. Developing the MOOC, I have the tremendous opportunity to make connections with people all over the world. Most of the people signed up are nowhere near the traditional U.S. college textbook market (MOOC international enrollment numbers). I face a problem that can't be solved by textbooks today, and limited-use "rental" text that will go away at the end of the course is not a valid solution.

So I'm doing something about it. The idea has many moving parts, but at its base is the need to supply quality educational content cheaply, with a way to get articles freely outside the usual college system. I'm going to be calling for help, so keep watching this space.
This is refreshingly honest. Of the many claims about MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course), the only one that makes sense to me is to use them as a possible replacement for textbooks. They can be used as a supplemental resources in a student-centered classroom.

MOOCs are good at delivering information—the sort of information you can get from a textbook.

Now I'm waiting to see if anyone creates a MOOC that comes close to the depth and quality of university science textbooks. I imagine that it can be done but it ain't going to be cheap.

John Hawks is an expert on anthropology but I find it difficult to imagine that he's going to be able to create drawings and figures of textbook quality for no cost. I don't see how he's going to ensure high quality editing and reviewing for free. I can't imagine how he's going to mount his course on servers and provide easy access for thousands of students without incurring some costs. He's going to have to pay for permissions to use photos and figures just like the textbooks do. Maybe he'll do all the administrative work himself or maybe somebody will work for him for no salary.

It's possible to overcome all these difficulties and provide free high quality MOOCs that will replace textbooks. So far, nobody has come close in any of the subjects that I'm interested in. Most existing biochemistry MOOCs are horrible.

Holding my breath ....


21 comments :

  1. MOOCs are in their infancy... with rapidly-developing digital apps the MOOCs of 10 years from now may be barely conceivable today. College classes have been around for centuries and still most of them are also "horrible," and probably won't be tolerable to today's 5-year-olds when they reach college-age.
    The uncontrolled costs of not just textbooks, but tuition, room & board, college buildings/utilities/salaries etc. will likely drive the necessity for MOOCs. Yes, the first high-quality ones will be costly, but once established the savings begin.

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  2. If Prof. John Hawks is seriously interested in implementing such an idea, I'm willing to volunteer as a graphic designer and an illustrator. And I'm sure that there are countless other graphic designers, web developers, and artists who are willing to join on board as well if the right concept is implemented and worked our properly.

    I'm even willing to send monthly or yearly donations for such a project to succeed and stand on its feet.

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    1. I admire your altruism.

      The people I worked with on my textbook got paid. They had families to support, mortgages to pay, and expensive health insurance. The person who did all the structure drawings has Ph.D. in biochemistry and is an expert on the software used to generate structures from X-ray diffraction data.

      There are 691 numbered figures in my textbook and about 150 additional figures. Send me your email address and I'll be in touch with you when we start the next edition.

      I'm even willing to send monthly or yearly donations for such a project to succeed and stand on its feet.

      Please send the money to me. If I can get 10,000 people to each send me $100, I might be able to publish a high quality textbook and give it away to students. I could do it for a lot less if I can find people like you who are willing to work for free for a few years.

      My department could really use a web developer who works for free. Do you have any names? I would like to have a personal assistant (PA) who would work for me for nothing. Please send me the names of your altruistic friends.

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    2. The software that you describe isn't incredibly hard to master, even for people at your age, Larry. Some of it is automated to the level where all you have to do is just feed it the X-Ray diffraction data files directly from popular databases, and it will generate the 3D structures for you on the spot. Some of this software is even open source, and you can get it for free, if you're so inclined. I have seen many science textbooks, and while it's true that they contain a lot of nice and helpful illustrations, they also include a lot of images that require very little editing, if any.

      I will send my donations to any project that makes education and educational material available for free for anyone to use and benefit from. Printing textbooks at this day and age is not an efficient way of communicating scientific knowledge to as wide an audience as possible. If you're willing to put up a PDF version of your textbook on your website for free, or maybe a custom build website or application that contains all the material, you'll receive my donations the next day, Larry.

      My altruistic friends and I aren't meant to replace the work that people do for a living. But to create useful and usable alternatives in our leisure time -- just because we think it's fun and it's worth it. I'm managing a group of more than 20 translators, editors, and amateur graphic designers. None of them receive a dime for the amazing work that they do. Because they do it for a purpose, and they understand its positive impact on society.

      That's the same driving force behind many of the amazing projects that are quickly changing the way we learn and acquire knowledge. The list of such useful projects includes Wikipedia, Khan Academy, Coursera, W3Schools, and Udacity, just to name a few. These projects aren't entirely supported by mere enthusiasm, I agree. They receive a lot of donations and funding from all over the world. But they are exemplars in getting people really excited about their noble ideas, and without that, they wouldn't have received the funding in the first place. That's why I believe that if Prof. Hawks' ideas are implemented properly, they could have a lot of potential.

      If I find value in being your personal assistant or a web developer for your department, I wouldn't hesitate in stepping up for the task. You have just to convince people that what you do is worth their time and effort. I spend the majority of my leisure time in promoting science and science education anyway, and I don't mind helping anyone in this regard.

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    3. The software that you describe isn't incredibly hard to master, even for people at your age, Larry. Some of it is automated to the level where all you have to do is just feed it the X-Ray diffraction data files directly from popular databases, and it will generate the 3D structures for you on the spot.

      I've been using this software for twenty-five years. I suspect that I know more about it than you do. I know, for example, that in order to produce textbook quality images quickly you need to be very familiar with the software. Just like you need to use PhotoShop every day in order to master it.

      Some of this software is even open source, and you can get it for free, if you're so inclined.

      Do you honestly believe that I don't know this? I've been getting my students to download it and use it since 1989.

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    4. You took my words as though they were directed against your person, even though I meant to illustrate a general point. If we want something that is fancy and extra special, yes we need to work hard for hours, and sometimes days to get it done. (We might also need to use more specialized and expensive software tools, if we think it's worth the effort going one more step in raising the quality). But if we want something that gets the point across, illustrates the basic concepts, with as much quality as afforded by the tools and expertise of the person using them, I think that you're exaggerating the difficulties and challenges that such a project might face. I personally would much rather access the same material with perhaps a little bit lower quality for free than to pay more than a hundred bucks for a book that I use only as a temporary reference. And the vast majority of students would agree with my position, I believe.

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    5. If I can get 10,000 people to each send me $100, I might be able to publish a high quality textbook and give it away to students.

      Do you only work on your textbook at home in your spare time? Or do you work on it in your office, using University time and resources? If the latter is true, why should you expect to get *any* financial benefit beyond what you are already getting from the University? I release my bionformatics software as open source, as befits the American taxpayers who paid for it. Work paid for by the Canadian taxpayer equally belongs to the people.

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    6. @Jonathan Badger
      Do you only work on your textbook at home in your spare time? Or do you work on it in your office, using University time and resources? If the latter is true, why should you expect to get *any* financial benefit beyond what you are already getting from the University?

      This point has been raised several times on this blog. Larry's attitude about it seems to be "everyone is doing it, so why not me?" He appears to have no problem charging Canadian taxpayers twice and may in fact feel that that's only for their own good.

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    7. If the latter is true, why should you expect to get *any* financial benefit beyond what you are already getting from the University?

      Professors write books. Universities encourage it. Maybe you've heard of Professor Richard Dawkins or Professor Stephen Jay Gould?

      I bet you know science Professors who get paid as consultants to biotech firms. Heck, I bet you even know some Professors who own biotech companies.

      English Professors publish novels. Music Professors perform at concerts. History Professors write non-fiction bestsellers.

      My point is that universities have a long history of encouraging Professors to work and earn extra money related to their area of expertise. Engineering Professors and Law Professors have been doing it for decades and almost everyone in the Faculties of Business and Management has consultant jobs.

      You may not like it but that's the system we have.

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    8. @DK

      I know you have a real chip on your shoulder because you never got hired as a Professor but your nasty comments about me are getting on my nerves.

      I'm going to give you a little break from Sandwalk until you learn to be more civil.

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    9. Certainly professors write books, but that isn't what they are paid to do. An English professor may write novels for profit, but on work hours they write papers about rhyming schemes in Shakespeare that don't get royalties any more than science papers. And Gould published real science papers besides his essays. Dawkins too, although not so much lately. As for consulting, there are very strict limits to that and I know of at least one professor who was fired for working on his consulting work on time he was supposed to be working for the University.

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    10. @Jonathan

      You really don't understand what Professors can and cannot do. Are you even trying?

      Typically a Professor is allowed to spend one day a week on outside jobs. There's no rule taht says they can't do it in their univetsity offices.

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    11. I think I know what professors can and cannot do, by virtue of being one myself as well. I'm not sure that there is anything that can said about "typical" arrangements in regard to consulting -- one day a week seems rather generous, but I'll grant that may well be what Toronto offers. However, the point is that the time is regulated in order not to interfere with the actual work -- non-private research and/or teaching -- that is actually being paid for by the taxpayers.

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    12. I'm glad we agree that Professors can do a variety of things and even earn extra money without behaving unethically.

      Now all you have to do is recognize that my area of expertise is science education and my "actual work" includes things like writing a successful textbook. That's a major part of my scholarly activity. You should also understand that I have expenses just like you do. Your laptop and your trips to conferences etc are covered by the extra money you make from research grants. Mine are paid for from royalties.

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  3. As linked on the other thread - here's a high quality textbook and accompanying high quality lecture series from a world leader in his field, all available for free: http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/itila/

    How is that so hard?

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    1. The subject is "Information Theory, Pattern Recognition and Neural Networks." I have no way of judging whether the material is accurate, comprehensive, and pitched at the right level. Do most experts in his field agree that it meets these criteria?

      In this a rare example of a field where class discussions of important concepts and misconceptions (i.e. student-centered learning) are not any better than having an expert deliver a formal lecture by video?

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    2. I can attest that it's high quality material and suitable for graduate level courses, such as the one for which the lectures have been made available (of course being at Cambridge University is not necessarily a guarantee of anything, but David MacKay really does know what he's doing). The lectures actually include plenty of student-student discussion opportunities as well as the usual student-lecturer interactions. Of course, university courses don't _just_ consist of lectures - there are also assignments etc and students have access to instructers outside of formal lectures.

      If I were to teach this material, I would probably make these lectures compulsory viewing (i.e. students should prep for class by watching them) and then spend the contact time discussing them.

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    3. I downloaded the book and while I am far from being an expert, I am impressed with how well it is written and designed.

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  4. You might be interested in this paper I co-authored examining the case of a computer science course "wrapped" around a MOOC, one that used the MOOC a bit like a textbook. We explore some of the ways that using a MOOC in this fashion is like using a textbook, and some of the ways it is not.

    The CS professor in that study, Doug Fisher, also has an interesting blog post arguing that MOOCs don't have the depth and flexibility to function as textbooks.

    Food for thought.

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  5. http://www.bogost.com/blog/mooc_rhetoric.shtml

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