In the past couple of weeks, we have had two different publishers ‘pitch’ their online homework system. First, they are fine people and interesting products, but I just don’t think this is going to work.
I think the publisher’s plan is to have a textbook, and offer extra stuff to go with it (including an ebook). However, for all the ones I have seen, there are problems with the ebooks.
- You can’t keep them forever. It depends on the terms of the service, and maybe this is long enough. The terms seem to vary from 1 year to 5 years. If you are in certain fields (physic or engineering) you might need this book longer than that.
- You can only read them on your computer. Not a Kindle or Sony ebook reader or iphone (actually, not sure about the iphone online). Plus, I am pretty sure you need to have internet access. Maybe the computer thing isn’t such a big deal for younger people, but I couldn’t handle it.
- They added a big feature – search. I think this is not such a big deal. One of the problems I see that students have with textbooks is that they try to use them just for equation hunting. This feature would make an equation hunter happy.
- Make sure your ebook highlights. I am not sure why they focus on highlighting. Maybe it is a big deal, but probably not as big of a deal as everyone makes out. Not sure how highlighting something makes you understand it.
- There was one possibly cool feature – students could take notes and share them with other students. Not sure how actually useful this would be, but cool anyway.
Maybe the problem is that publishers are make their textbooks online rather than making a new book that couldn’t have an existing paper-version counter part.
Online homework has been around for a long time. However, now the publishers are all into making their own versions. “Look, ours gives feedback.” Ok, this may be true – and I think that some of these systems are getting better. However, the first demo I saw showed a symbolic problem (something like “what is the expression for the tension in the rope?”). If you put in a random answer like “m” the feedback was “m is not in the answer”. I would consider that not very helpful. This one publisher (I am not mentioning names so they will keep bringing me free cookies) had responses based on actual student data. So, in this case, I think that no one had ever answered “m” in their answer. But, if they did, a more useful response would be something like “do the units work out for that answer?”.
It seems that the direction these systems are heading to is something like a virtual, online-tutor. That would be great, but it is not there yet.
From the other publisher, they showed a free-body-diagram drawing question. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? It actually checks if you are correct. However, it only allowed you to draw the forces that were correct. This is the problem students have – they tend to put these forces on the force diagram that shouldn’t go there (like the ‘force of the throw’). Actually, there is a better applet out there for drawing free body diagram PADs – I can’t remember what PAD stands for, but I bet the P is for Physics.
The thing I like most about PADs is that every force is clearly an interaction between two objects. You choose the objects. Also, PADs has some cool graph drawing (and checking) applets.
The other problem I had with this second publisher’s offerings is that some of their interactive computer stuff looked about equivalent to the stuff from PhET. If you don’t know what PhET is, you should go check it out. Great stuff.
Where should the textbook go?
This is a question that was discussed after the meeting. It is a difficult question. Where should it go? Well, where is it now? What is the textbook used for? How do the students use it? It seems like some students like to use it as a reference “what is the equation with I in it?” For me, the textbook is like the first part of the learning. It goes like this:
- Students read the book, maybe they don’t completely understand it but they read it.
- The second part of learning is in class. I don’t go over everything in the book, that would make the book redundant. Instead we work on the trickier parts of the material. Class is a time to interact and to be active.
- The last part of learning is the homework. How can you really understand this stuff unless you work at it?
Is the book (as it is now) a key component? Not really. It could be replaced by something else. I think you can’t really talk about what will happen to the textbook by itself. You need to consider it as part of the overall learning environment.