The GOP unveils a disastrous replacement for Obamacare, Michelle Wolf details Ivanka Trump's problematic brand of feminism, and Tressie McMillan Cottom discusses "Lower Ed."
The Ivanka takedown was just brutal.Syndicated copies to:
WithKnown is a fantastic, free, and opensource content management service that supports some of the most bleeding edge technology on the internet. I’ve been playing with it for over two years and love it!
And today, there’s another reason to love it even more…
This is also a great reminder that developers can have a lasting and useful impact on the world around them–even in the political arena.Syndicated copies to:
Many readers often ask me for resources for delving into the basics of information theory. I hadn’t posted it before, but the Santa Fe Institute recently had an online course Introduction to Information Theory through their Complexity Explorer, which has some other excellent offerings. It included videos, fora, and other resources and was taught by the esteemed physicist and professor Seth Lloyd. There are a number of currently active students still learning and posting there.
Syndicated copies to:
Introduction to Information Theory
About the Tutorial:
This tutorial introduces fundamental concepts in information theory. Information theory has made considerable impact in complex systems, and has in part co-evolved with complexity science. Research areas ranging from ecology and biology to aerospace and information technology have all seen benefits from the growth of information theory.
In this tutorial, students will follow the development of information theory from bits to modern application in computing and communication. Along the way Seth Lloyd introduces valuable topics in information theory such as mutual information, boolean logic, channel capacity, and the natural relationship between information and entropy.
Lloyd coherently covers a substantial amount of material while limiting discussion of the mathematics involved. When formulas or derivations are considered, Lloyd describes the mathematics such that less advanced math students will find the tutorial accessible. Prerequisites for this tutorial are an understanding of logarithms, and at least a year of high-school algebra.
About the Instructor(s):
Professor Seth Lloyd is a principal investigator in the Research Laboratory of Electronics (RLE) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1982, the Certificate of Advanced Study in Mathematics (Part III) and an M. Phil. in Philosophy of Science from Cambridge University in 1983 and 1984 under a Marshall Fellowship, and a Ph.D. in Physics in 1988 from Rockefeller University under the supervision of Professor Heinz Pagels.
From 1988 to 1991, Professor Lloyd was a postdoctoral fellow in the High Energy Physics Department at the California Institute of Technology, where he worked with Professor Murray Gell-Mann on applications of information to quantum-mechanical systems. From 1991 to 1994, he was a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked at the Center for Nonlinear Systems on quantum computation. In 1994, he joined the faculty of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. Since 1988, Professor Lloyd has also been an adjunct faculty member at the Sante Fe Institute.
Professor Lloyd has performed seminal work in the fields of quantum computation and quantum communications, including proposing the first technologically feasible design for a quantum computer, demonstrating the viability of quantum analog computation, proving quantum analogs of Shannon’s noisy channel theorem, and designing novel methods for quantum error correction and noise reduction.
Professor Lloyd is a member of the American Physical Society and the Amercian Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Yoav Kallus is an Omidyar Fellow at the Santa Fe Institute. His research at the boundary of statistical physics and geometry looks at how and when simple interactions lead to the formation of complex order in materials and when preferred local order leads to system-wide disorder. Yoav holds a B.Sc. in physics from Rice University and a Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University. Before joining the Santa Fe Institute, Yoav was a postdoctoral fellow at the Princeton Center for Theoretical Science in Princeton University.
- Forms of Information
- Information and Probability
- Fundamental Formula of Information
- Computation and Logic: Information Processing
- Mutual Information
- Communication Capacity
- Shannon’s Coding Theorem
- The Manifold Things Information Measures
Great to see this interview with my friend and mathematician Richard Brown from Johns Hopkins Unviersity. Psst: He’s got an interesting little blog, or you can follow some of his work on Facebook and Twitter.
Click through for the full interview: Q+A with Richard Brown, director of undergraduate studies in Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Mathematics
t’s the beginning of yet another quarter/semester (or ovester, if you prefer) and a new crop of inquiries have come up around selling back used textbooks and purchasing new textbooks for upcoming classes. I’m not talking about the philosophical discussion about choosing your own textbooks that I’ve mentioned before. I’m considering, in the digital era,
What are the best options for purchasing, renting, or utilizing textbook products in what is a relatively quickly shifting market?
The popular press has a variety of evergreen stories that hit the wire at the beginning of each semester that scratch just the surface of the broader textbook issue or focus on one tiny upstart company that promises to drastically disrupt the market (yet somehow never does), but these articles never delve just a bit deeper into the market to give a broader array of ideas and, more importantly, solutions for the students/parents who are spending the bulk of the money to support the inequalities the market has built.
I aim to facilitate some of this digging and revealing based on years of personal book buying experience as well as having specified textbooks as an instructor in the past.
Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts.
Before taking a look at the pure economics of the market for the various forms of purchase, resale, or even renting, one should first figure out one’s preference for reading format. There are obviously many different means of learning (visual, auditory, experiential, etc.) which some will prefer over others, so try to tailor your “texts” to your preferred learning style as much as possible. For those who prefer auditory learning modes, be sure to check out alternatives like Audible or the wealth of online video/audio materials that have proliferated in the MOOC revolution. For those who are visual learners or who learn best by reading, do you prefer ebook formats over physical books? There are many studies showing the benefit of one over the other, but some of this comes down to personal preference and how comfortable one is with particular formats. Most current students won’t have been born late enough that electronic files for books and texts will have been common enough to prefer them over physical texts, but with practice and time, many will prefer electronic texts in the long term, particularly as one can highlight, mark up, and more easily search, store, and even carry electronic texts. It’s taken me (an avowed paper native) several years, but I now vastly prefer to have books in electronic format for some of the reasons indicated above in addition to the fact that I can carry a library of 2,500+ books with me almost anywhere I go. I also love being able to almost instantly download anything that I don’t currently own but may need/want.
The one caveat I’ll mention, particularly for visual learners (or those with pseudo-photographic or eidetic memory), is that they attempt to keep a two-page reading format on their e-reading devices as their long-term memory for reading will increase with the ability to place the knowledge on the part of the page(s) where they originally encountered it (that is, I remember seeing that particular item on the top left, or middle right portion of a particular page.) Sometimes this isn’t always possible due to an e-reader’s formatting capabilities or the readability of the size of the text (for example, a .pdf file on a Kindle DX would be preferable to the same file on a much smaller smartphone) , but for many it can be quite helpful. Personally, I can remember where particular words and grammatical constructs appeared in my 10th grade Latin text many years later while I would be very unlikely to be able to do this with the presentation of some modern-day e-readers or alternate technologies like rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP).
Personally, as a student and a bibliophile (read: bibliomaniac), I would typically purchase all of the physical texts for all of my classes. I know this isn’t a realizable reality for everyone, so, for the rest, I would recommend purchasing all of the texts (physical or electronic, depending on one’s preference for personal use) in one’s main area of study, which one could then keep for the long term and not sell back. This allows one to build a library that will serve as a long term reference for one’s primary area(s) of study.
In general, I’m opposed to renting books or purchasing them for a semester or year and then returning them for a partial refund. It’s rarely a great solution for the end consumer who ends up losing the greater value of the textbook. Even books returned and sold later as used, often go for many multiples of their turn in price the following term, so if it’s a newer or recent edition, it’s probably better to hold on to it for a few months and then sell it for a used price, slightly lower than the college bookstore’s going rate.
For tangential texts in classes I know I don’t want to keep for the long term, I’d usually find online versions or borrow (for free) from the local college or public library (many books are available electronically through the library or are borrow-able through the library reserve room.)
Most public libraries use systems like Overdrive, Axis 360 (Baker & Taylor), Adobe Digital Editions, 3M Cloud Library, etc. to allow students to check out a broad array of fiction and non-fiction for free for loan terms from as short as a week up to a month or more. Additionally well-known websites like the Project Gutenberg and Archive.org have lots of commonly used texts available for free download in a broad variety of formats. This includes a lot of classic fiction, philosophy, and other texts used in the humanities. Essentially most works published in the United States prior to 1923 and many additional texts published after this as well can be found in the public domain. Additional information on what is in the public domain can be found here: Copyright Term and Public Domain in the United States.
Why pay $10-20 for a classic book like Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan when you can find copies for free online, unless of course you’re getting a huge amount of additional scholarship and additional notes along with it.
Often college students forget that they’re not just stuck with their local institutional library, so I’ll remind everyone to check out their local public library(s) as well as other nearby institutional libraries and inter-library loan options which may give them longer term loan terms.
One of the most important changes in the textbook market that every buyer should be aware of: last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. the US Supreme Court upheld the ability for US-based students to buy copies of textbooks printed in foreign countries (often at huge cut-rate prices) [see also Ars Technica]. This means that searching online bookstores in India, Indonesia, Pakistan, etc. will often find the EXACT same textbooks (usually with slightly different ISBNs, and slightly cheaper paper) for HUGE discounts in the 60-95% range.
Example: I recently bought an international edition of Walter Rudin’s Principles of Mathematical Analysis (Amazon $121) for $5 (and it even happened to ship from within the US for $3). Not only was this 96% off of the cover price, but it was 78% off of Amazon’s rental price! How amazing is it to spend almost as much to purchase a book as it is to ship it to yourself!? I’ll also note here that the first edition of this book appeared in 1964 and this very popular third edition is from 1976, so it isn’t an example of “edition creep”, but it’s still got a tremendous mark up in relation to other common analysis texts which list on Amazon for $35-50.
Hint: Abe Books (a subsidiary of Amazon) is better than most at finding/sourcing international editions of textbooks.
For some of the most expensive math/science/engineering texts one can buy an edition one or two earlier than the current one. In these cases, the main text changes very little, if any, and the primary difference is usually additional problems in the homework sections (which causes small discrepancies in page number counts). If necessary, the problem sets can be easily obtained via the reserve room in the library or by briefly borrowing/photocopying problems from classmates who have the current edition. The constant “edition-churning” by publishers is mean to help prop up high textbook prices.
Definition: “Edition Churning” or “Edition Creep“: a common practice of textbook publishers of adding scant new material, if any, to textbooks on a yearly or every-other-yearly basis thereby making older editions seem prematurely obsolete and thereby propping up the prices of their textbooks. Professors who blithely utilize the newest edition of a texbook are often unknowingly complicit in propping up prices in these situations.
One may find some usefulness or convenience in traditional bookstores, particularly Barnes & Noble, the last of the freestanding big box retailers. If you’re a member of their affinity program and get an additional discount for ordering books directly through them, then it may not be a horrible idea to do so. Still, they’re paying for a relatively large overhead and it’s likely that you’ll find cheaper prices elsewhere.
These are becoming increasingly lean and many may begin disappearing over the next decade or so, much the way many traditional bookstores have disappeared in the last decade with the increasing competition online. Because many students aren’t the best at price comparison, however, and because of their position in the economic chain, many are managing to hang on quite well. Keep in mind that many campus bookstores have fine print deals in which they’ll match or beat pricing you find online, so be sure to take advantage of this fact, particularly when shipping from many services will make an equivalent online purchase a few dollars more expensive.
There are fewer and fewer of these around these days and even fewer textbook-specific stores that traditionally sprouted up next to major campuses. This last type may not be a horrible place to shop, but they’re likely to specialize in used texts of only official texts. Otherwise, general used bookstores are more likely to specialize in paperbacks and popular used fiction and have very lean textbook selection, if any.
Naturally when shopping for textbooks there are a veritable wealth of websites to shop around online including: Amazon, Alibris, Barnes & Noble, AbeBooks, Google Play, Half/EBay. Chegg, Valore, CampusBookRentals, TextBooks.com, and ECampus. But in the Web2.0 world, we can now uses websites with even larger volumes of data and meta-data as a clearing-house for our shopping. So instead of shopping and doing price comparison at the dozens of competing sites, why not use a meta-site to do the comparison for us algorithmically and much more quickly.
There are a variety of meta-retailer shopping methods including several browser plugins and comparison sites (Chrome, Firefox, InvisibleHand, PriceBlink, PriceGong, etc.) that one can install to provide pricing comparisons, so that, for example, while shopping on Amazon, one will see lower priced offerings from their competitors. However, possibly the best website I’ve come across for cross-site book comparisons is GetTextbooks.com. One can easily search for textbooks (by author, title, ISBN, etc.) and get back a list of retailers with copies that is sortable by price (including shipping) as well as by new/used and even by rental availability. They even highlight one entry algorithmicly to indicate their recommended “best value”.
Similar to GetTextbooks is the webservice SlugBooks, though it doesn’t appear to search as many sites or present as much data.
When searching for potential textbooks, don’t forget that one can “showroom” the book in one’s local bookstore or even at one’s local library(s). This is particularly useful if one is debating whether or not to take a particular class, or if one is kicking tires to see if it’s really the best book for them, or if they should be looking at other textbooks.
From an economic standpoint, keep in mind there is usually more availability and selection on editions bought a month or so before the start of classes, as often-used texts are used by thousands of students over the world, thus creating a spot market for used texts at semester and quarter starts. Professors often list their textbooks when class listings for future semesters are released, so students surfing for the best deals for used textbooks can very often find them in mid-semester (or mid-quarter) well before the purchasing rush begins for any/most titles.
And finally, there is also the black market (also known as outright theft), which is usually spoken of in back-channels either online or in person. Most mainstream articles which reference this portion of the market usually refer tangentially to a grey market in which one student passes along a .pdf or other pirated file to fellow students rather than individual students being enterprising enough to go out hunting for their own files.
Most will know of or have heard about websites like PirateBay, but there are a variety of lesser-known torrent sites which are typically hosted in foreign countries which extend beyond the reach of the United States Copyright law enforcement. Increasingly, mega-pirate websites in the vein of the now-defunct Library.nu (or previously Gigapedia) or the slowly dying empire of Library Genesis are hiding all over the web and become quick and easy clearing houses for pirated copies of ebooks, typically in .pdf or .djvu formats, though many are in .epub, .mobi, .azw, or alternate e-book formats. The typical set up for these sites is one or more illegal file repositories for allowing downloads with one (or more) primary hubs that don’t necessarily store the pirated materials, but instead serve as a searchable hub which points to the files.
Creative advanced searches for book authors, titles, ISBNs along with the words .pdf, .djvu, torrent, etc. can often reveal portions of this dark web. Naturally, caveat emptor applies heavily to these types of sites as often files can be corrupted or contain viruses to unwary or unwitting thieves. Many of these sites may attempt to extract a small token monthly fee as a subscription or will rely heavily on serving banner advertising to help to offset large web hosting and traffic fees associated with their maintenance, though it is posited that many of them make in the millions of dollars in profit annually due to advertising arrangements, though this is incredibly hard to validate given the nature of these types of markets and how they operate.
Rather than stoop as low as finding textbooks on the black market this way, students should place pressure on their professors, the faculty of their departments, and their colleges or universities to help assist in smoothing out some of the pricing inequities in the system (see below). In the long run, this will not only tend to help them, but many future generations of students who will be left adrift in the market otherwise.
The biggest primary issue facing the overpriced textbook market is that the end consumers of the textbooks aren’t really firmly in charge of the decision of which textbook to purchase. This is why I advocate that students research and decide by themselves which textbook they’re going to use and whether or not they really need to make that purchase. Instead, individual professors or the departments for which they work are dictating the textbooks that will be purchased. The game theory dynamics behind this small decision are the massive fulcrum which allows the publishing industry to dictate their own terms. Students (and parents) should, in a sense, unionize and make their voices heard not only to the professors, but to the departments and even the colleges/universities which they’re attending. If universities took a strong stance on how the markets worked, either for or against them and their students, they could create strong market-moving forces to drastically decrease the cost of textbooks.
The other larger issue is that market forces aren’t allowed to play out naturally in the college textbook market. Publishers lean on professors and departments to “adopt” overpriced textbooks. These departments in turn “require” these texts and students aren’t questioning enough to use other texts for fear of not succeeding in courses. If the system were questioned, they’d realize that instead of their $200-300 textbook, they could easily purchase alternate, equivalent, and often even better textbooks for $20-50. To put things into perspective, the time, effort, energy, and production cost for the typical book isn’t drastically different than the average textbook, yet we’re not paying $250 for a copy of the average new hardcover on the best seller list. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that universities, departments, and professors are colluding with publishers, but they’re certainly not helping to make the system better.
I’ve always taken the view that the ‘required’ textbook was really just a ‘suggestion’. (Have you ever known a professor to fail a student for not purchasing the ‘required’ textbook?!)
In past generations, one of the first jobs of a student was to select their own textbook. Reverting back to this paradigm may help to drastically change the economics of the situation. For the interested students, I’ve written a bit about the philosophy and mechanics here: On Choosing Your Own Textbooks.
Basic economics 101 theory of supply and demand would typically indicate to us that basic textbooks for subjects like calculus, intro physics, or chemistry that are used by very large numbers of students should be not only numerous, but also very cheap, while more specialized books like Lie Groups and Lie Algebras or Electromagnetic Theory should be less numerous and also more expensive. Unfortunately and remarkably, the most popular calculus textbooks are 2-5 times more expensive than their advanced abstract mathematical brethren and similarly for introductory physics texts versus EM theory books.
To drastically cut down on these market inequities, when possible, Colleges and Universities should:
As an added bonus, for those with rather large (or rapidly growing) e-book collections, I highly recommend downloading and using the free Calibre Library software. For my 2000+ e-books and documents, this is an indispensable program that is to books as iTunes is to music. I also use it to download dozens of magazines and newspapers on a daily basis for reading on my Kindle. I love that it’s under constant development with weekly updates for improved functionality. It works on all major OSes and is compatible with almost every e-reader on the planet. Additionally, plug-ins and a myriad of settings allow for additional extensibility for integration with other e-book software and web services (for example: integration with GoodReads or the ability to add additional data and meta-data to one’s books.)
Be sure to read through the commentary on some of these posts for some additional great information.
I invite everyone to include their comments and advice below as I’m sure I haven’t covered the topic completely or there are bound to be new players in the space increasing competition as time goes by.Syndicated copies to:
The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited builds on the 2000 report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers. That ground-breaking report assessed the postdoctoral experience and provided principles, action points, and recommendations to enhance that experience. Since the publication of the 2000 report, the postdoctoral landscape has changed considerably. The percentage of PhDs who pursue postdoctoral training is growing steadily and spreading from the biomedical and physical sciences to engineering and the social sciences. The average length of time spent in postdoctoral positions seems to be increasing. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited reexamines postdoctoral programs in the United States, focusing on how postdocs are being guided and managed, how institutional practices have changed, and what happens to postdocs after they complete their programs. This book explores important changes that have occurred in postdoctoral practices and the research ecosystem and assesses how well current practices meet the needs of these fledgling scientists and engineers and of the research enterprise. The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited takes a fresh look at current postdoctoral fellows - how many there are, where they are working, in what fields, and for how many years. This book makes recommendations to improve aspects of programs - postdoctoral period of service, title and role, career development, compensation and benefits, and mentoring. Current data on demographics, career aspirations, and career outcomes for postdocs are limited. This report makes the case for better data collection by research institution and data sharing. A larger goal of this study is not only to propose ways to make the postdoctoral system better for the postdoctoral researchers themselves but also to better understand the role that postdoctoral training plays in the research enterprise. It is also to ask whether there are alternative ways to satisfy some of the research and career development needs of postdoctoral researchers that are now being met with several years of advanced training. Postdoctoral researchers are the future of the research enterprise. The discussion and recommendations of The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited will stimulate action toward clarifying the role of postdoctoral researchers and improving their status and experience.
The National Academy of Sciences has published a (free) book: The Postdoctoral Experience (Revisited) discussing where we’re at and some ideas for a way forward.
Most might agree that our educational system is far less than ideal, but few pay attention to significant problems at the highest levels of academia which are holding back a great deal of our national “innovation machinery”. The National Academy of Sciences has published a (free) book: The Postdoctoral Experience (Revisited) discussing where we’re at and some ideas for a way forward. There are some interesting ideas here, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
As many may know or have already heard, Dr. Mike Miller, a retired mathematician from RAND and long-time math professor at UCLA, is offering a course on Introduction to Lie Groups and Lie Algebras this fall through UCLA Extension. Whether you’re a professional mathematician, engineer, physicist, physician, or even a hobbyist interested in mathematics you’ll be sure to get something interesting out of this course, not to mention the camaraderie of 20-30 other “regulars” with widely varying backgrounds (actors to surgeons and evolutionary theorists to engineers) who’ve been taking almost everything Mike has offered over the years (and yes, he’s THAT good — we’re sure you’ll be addicted too.)
Even if it’s been years since you last took Calculus or Linear Algebra, Mike (and the rest of the class) will help you get quickly back up to speed to delve into what is often otherwise a very deep subject. If you’re interested in advanced physics, quantum mechanics, quantum information or string theory, this is one of the topics that is de rigueur for delving in deeply and being able to understand them better. The topic is also one near and dear to the hearts of those in robotics, graphics, 3-D modelling, gaming, and areas utilizing multi-dimensional rotations. And naturally, it’s simply a beautiful and elegant subject for those who have no need to apply it to anything, but who just want to meander their way through higher mathematics for the fun of it (this will comprise the largest majority of the class by the way.)
Whether you’ve been away from serious math for decades or use it every day or even if you’ve never gone past Calculus or Linear Algebra, this is bound to be the most entertaining thing you can do with your Tuesday nights in the fall. If you’re not sure what you’re getting into (or are scared a bit by the course description), I highly encourage to come and join us for at least the first class before you pass up on the opportunity. I’ll mention that the greater majority of new students to Mike’s classes join the ever-growing group of regulars who take almost everything he teaches subsequently. (For the reticent, I’ll mention that one of the first courses I took from Mike was Algebraic Topology which generally requires a few semesters of Abstract Algebra and a semester of Topology as prerequisites. I’d taken neither of these prerequisites, but due to Mike’s excellent lecture style and desire to make everything comprehensible, I was able to do exceedingly well in the course.) I’m happy to chat with those who may be reticent. Also keep in mind that you can register to take the class for a grade, pass/fail, or even no grade at all to suit your needs/lifestyle.
As a group, some of us have a collection of a few dozen texts in the area which we’re happy to loan out as well. In addition to the one recommended text (Mike always gives such comprehensive notes that any text for his classes is purely supplemental at best), several of us have also found some good similar texts:
Given the breadth and diversity of the backgrounds of students in the class, I’m sure Mike will spend some reasonable time at the beginning [or later in the class, as necessary] doing a quick overview of some linear algebra and calculus related topics that will be needed later in the quarter(s).
Further information on the class and a link to register can be found below. If you know of others who might be interested in this, please feel free to forward it along – the more the merrier.
I hope to see you all soon.
MATH X 450.6 / 3.00 units / Reg. # 249254W
Professor: Michael Miller, Ph.D.
Start Date: 9/30/2014
Location UCLA: 5137 Math Sciences Building
September 30 – December 16, 2014
11 meetings total (no mtg 11/11)
Register here: https://www.uclaextension.edu/Pages/Course.aspx?reg=249254
A Lie group is a differentiable manifold that is also a group for which the product and inverse maps are differentiable. A Lie algebra is a vector space endowed with a binary operation that is bilinear, alternating, and satisfies the so-called Jacobi identity. This course, the first in a 2-quarter sequence, is an introductory survey of Lie groups, their associated Lie algebras, and their representations. This first quarter will focus on the special case of matrix Lie groups–including general linear, special linear, orthogonal, unitary, and symplectic. The second quarter will generalize the theory developed to the case of arbitrary Lie groups. Topics to be discussed include compactness and connectedness, homomorphisms and isomorphisms, exponential mappings, the Baker-Campbell-Hausdorff formula, covering groups, and the Weyl group. This is an advanced course, requiring a solid understanding of linear algebra and basic analysis.
Syndicated copies to:
Robert Greenberg recently wrote a Facebook post relating to a New York Times review article entitled “For This Class, Professors Pass Screen Test“. It’s substantively about The Teaching Company and their series The Great Courses (TGC); for convenience I’ll excerpt his comments in their entirety below:
My response to his post with some thoughts of my own follows:
This is an interesting, but very germane, review. As someone who’s both worked in the entertainment industry and followed the MOOC (massively open online courseware) revolution over the past decade, I very often consider the physical production value of TGCs offerings and have been generally pleased at their steady improvement over time. Not only do they offer some generally excellent content, but they’re entertaining and pleasing to watch. From a multimedia perspective, I’m always amazed at what they offer and that generally the difference between the video versus the audio only versions isn’t as drastic as one might otherwise expect. Though there are times that I think that TGC might include some additional graphics, maps, etc. either in the course itself or in the booklets, I’m impressed that they still function exceptionally well without them.
Within the MOOC revolution, Sue Alcott’s Coursera course Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets is still by far the best produced multi-media course I’ve come across. It’s going to take a lot of serious effort for other courses to come up to this level of production however. It’s one of the few courses which I think rivals that of The Teaching Company’s offerings thus far. Unfortunately, the increased competition in the MOOC space is going to eventually encroach on the business model of TGC, and I’m curious to see how that will evolve and how it will benefit students. Will TGC be forced to offer online fora for students to interact with each other the way most MOOCs do? Will MOOCs be forced to drastically increase their production quality to the level of TGC? Will certificates or diplomas be offered for courseware? Will the subsequent models be free (like most MOOCs now), paid like TGC, or some mixture of the two?
One area which neither platform seems to be doing very well at present is offering more advanced coursework. Naturally the primary difficulty is in having enough audience to justify the production effort. The audience for a graduate level topology class is simply far smaller than introductory courses in history or music appreciation, but those types of courses will eventually have to exist to make the enterprises sustainable – in addition to the fact that they add real value to society. Another difficulty is that advanced coursework usually requires some significant work outside of the lecture environment – readings, homework, etc. MOOCs seem to have a slight upper hand here while TGC has generally relied on all of the significant material being offered in a lecture with the suggestion of reading their accompanying booklets and possibly offering supplementary bibliographies. When are we going to start seeing course work at the upper-level undergraduate or graduate level?
The nice part is that with evolving technology and capabilities, there are potentially new pedagogic methods that will allow easier teaching of some material that may not have been possible previously. (For some brief examples, see this post I wrote last week on Latin and the digital humanities.) In particular, I’m sure many of us have been astounded and pleased at how Dr. Greenberg managed the supreme gymnastics of offering of “Understanding the Fundamentals of Music” without delving into traditional music theory and written notation, but will he be able to actually offer that in new and exciting ways to increase our levels of understanding of music and then spawn off another 618 lectures that take us all further and deeper into his exciting world? Perhaps it comes in the form of a multimedia mobile app? We’re all waiting with bated breath, because regardless of how he pulls it off, we know it’s going to be educational, entertaining and truly awe inspiring.
Following my commentary, Scott Ableman, the Chief Marketing Officer for TGC, responded with the following, which I find very interesting:
In the essay, Dr. Katz provides a bevy of solid reasons why one shouldn’t become a researcher. I highly recommend everyone read it and then carefully consider how we can turn these problems around.
Editor’s Note: The original article has since been moved to another server.
We’re just past mid-summer. This means that most professors have just put in their book orders with bookstores for their fall courses if they haven’t already done so months ago. Enterprising students are either looking online for what those fall textbooks will be, or contacting their professors for booklists so they can begin pre-reading material.
The Chronicle of Higher Education’s ProfHacker Blog recently published an article by Erin Templeton entitled “Read Ahead to Get Ahead? Not so Fast” in which she stated a philosophy in which reading ahead might not be such a good idea. I certainly understand the point of view of withholding a reading list for the reasons mentioned particularly for fiction classes, though I would personally tend to use her spectacular advice given in the last paragraph. Unfortunately, for the broader topic of textbooks, I think it’s disingenuous to take such a narrow view as fiction (and similar) classes are a small segment of the market. If nothing, the headline certainly makes for excellent link-bait as the blogosphere would define it.
From the broader perspective, it is generally a good idea to get copies of the reading list early and get a jump start on the material. But more than this, there is actually a better way of approaching the idea of textbooks, particularly for the dedicated student.
It’s more than once been my experience that the professor chooses the worst text available for a particular course – perhaps because she doesn’t care, because it was the cheapest, because she liked the textbook salesperson, because it’s the “standard” text used by everyone in the field despite its obvious flaws, because it’s the legacy text prescribed by the department, because it’s the text she used in graduate school, because she wrote it, or simply because the deadline for ordering for the bookstore was looming and wanted the task out of the way. Maybe she actually put in a great deal of work and research choosing the book six years ago but hasn’t compared any texts since then and there are two new books on the market and her previous second choice has been significantly updated and all of them may be better choices now.
Historically, it used to be the case that the first job the student faced was to do some research to choose their own textbook! Sadly — especially as most courses have dozens of excellent potential texts available for use — this concept has long since disappeared. How can this travesty be remedied?
The first step is realizing that when the course guide says that a book is “required” it really means that it’s recommended. Occasionally, for some courses or in-class work (think literature classes where everyone is reading the same text because absolutely no alternates are available), actually having the required text may be very beneficial, but more often than not, not having the particular text really isn’t a big issue. One can always borrow a classmate’s text for a moment or consult a copy from a local library or from the library reserves as most colleges put their required textbooks aside for just such a use.
When taking a course myself, I’ll visit the library, local bookstores, and even browse online and pull every text I can get my hands on as well as some supplemental texts about a particular topic. I’ll cull through recommended reading lists for similar courses at other universities. Then I’ll spend a day or two browsing through them to judge their general level of sophistication, the soundness of their didactic presentation, the amount of information they contain, what other texts they cite, are there excessive typos, are they well edited, do the graphs, charts, or diagrams assist in learning, find out if the third edition is really better than the second to justify the eighty dollar price differential, and a variety of other criteria depending on the text, the class, and the level of difficulty. In short, I do what I would hope any other professor would do herself, as one can’t always trust that they’ve done their own homework.
Naturally I’m not able to do this research from the same perspective as the professor, and this is something that I take into account when choosing my own textbook. More often than not many professors are thrilled to engage in a discussion about the available textbooks and what they like and dislike about each and which alternates might be more suitable for individual students depending on what they hope to get out of the class. But doing this research certainly gives me a much broader perspective on what I’m about to learn: what are the general topics? what are the differing perspectives? what do alternate presentations look like? what might I be missing? how do the tables of contents differ? how has the level of the material progressed in the past decade or the last century? Finally I choose my own textbook for personal learning throughout the semester. I may occasionally supplement it with those I’ve researched or the one recommended (aka “required”) by the professor or may read library reserve copies or take the requisite homework problems/questions from them. I find that in doing this type of research greatly enhances what I’m about to learn and is far more useful than simply taking the required text and bargain hunting for the best price among five online retailers. In fact, one might argue that forcing students to choose their own textbooks will not only help draw them into the topic, but it will also tend to enhance their ability to think, rationalize, and make better decisions not only as it relates to the coursework at hand but later on in life itself.
Often textbooks will cover things from drastically different perspectives. As a simple example, let’s take the topic of statistics. There are dozens of broad-based statistics texts which try to be everything for everybody, but what if, as a student, I know I’m more interested in a directed area of application for my statistics study? I could easily find several textbooks geared specifically towards biology, economics, business, electrical engineering and even psychology. Even within the subcategory of electrical engineering there are probability and statistics books aimed at the beginner, the more advanced student, and even texts which are geared very specifically toward the budding information theorist. Perhaps as a student I might be better off using texts from writers like Pfeiffer, Leon-Garcia, or one of Renyi’s textbooks instead of a more broadly based engineering text like that of Walpole, Myers, Myers, and Ye? And even in this very small subsection of four books there is a fairly broad group of presentations made.
I think it’s entirely likely that a student studying a given topic will be much better motivated if she’s better engaged by the range of applications and subtopics which appeal more to her interests and future studies than being forced into using one of the more generic textbooks which try to cover 20 different applications. Naturally I’ll agree that having exposure to these other topics can be useful within the context of a broader liberal arts setting, but won’t the student who’s compared 20 different textbooks have naturally absorbed some of this in the process or get it from the professors lectures on the subject?
For the student, doing this type of choose-your-own-textbook research also has the lovely side effect of showing them where they stand in a particular subject. If they need remedial help, they’re already aware of what books they can turn to. Or, alternately, if they’re bored, they can jump ahead or use an alternate and more advanced text. The enterprising student may realize that the professor requires text A, but uses text B to draw from for lectures, and text C for formulating (often read: stealing) quiz and test material. Perhaps while using an alternate text they’ll become aware of subtopics and applications to which they might not have otherwise been privy.
Finally and fortuitously, it also doesn’t take more than a few moments to realize what wonderful and profound effects that such a competitive book choosing strategy will have on the textbook industry if it were widely adopted! I’d imagine there would be a much larger amount of direct competition in the textbook market which would almost necessitate newer and better textbooks at significantly reduced prices.
If you’re a student, I hope you’ll take the time for one of your upcoming classes to try this method and select your own “required” textbook as well as one or two recommended texts. I’m sure you’ll not only be more engaged by the subject, but that you’ll find the small amount of additional work well worth the effort. If you’re a professor, I hope you might not require a particular textbook for your next course, but might rather suggest a broad handful of interesting textbooks based on your own experience and spend 15 minutes of class time discussing the texts before making the student’s first assignment to choose their own textbook (and possibly subsequently asking them why they chose it.)