Thursday, May 24, 2007

One More Thing Adding to the Price of Textbooks

The Stewart Calculus book that we use comes with a set of VHS tapes. After a short introduction by Stewart himself, there are 16 hours of video of some guy working calculus problems.

Hoping that we could use these for good purpose (maybe by having the library digitize them and make them available via Blackboard to our calculus students), I watched a few minutes.

The presentation was not dynamic or charismatic.

And they chose to have the problems "worked out" on a TV screen, sort of like PPT, but not quite. The guy would talk, and formulas would appear on a TV in frame.

I can't imagine that this ancillary is much-used or much-requested.

Here's my wish-list (in descending order of importance) of extras that the publishers could provide:
  1. Enough solutions manuals for all the TAs, without my having to keep calling the book reps to ask for more.
  2. An easy-to-access library of pdf (preferred, but jpg would be OK) images from the textbook. I'd like as many of the graphs and diagrams from the examples and the homework as I could possibly have. Currently the Stewart Calculus people provide a set of really bad PPTs which serve this purpose reasonably well: I make my own slides using their images.
  3. An online homework system, well-designed from a human factors standpoint. If my students have trouble setting up their accounts, logging in to the system, or understanding the syntax for inputting their responses, they won't use it (even if it counts for a large portion of their grades). I know, ideally they'd know enough about algebra to realize the difference between -2^2 and -(2^2), but they don't. Many would argue that this should preclude their success in calculus; the administration at my university disagrees with this point of view, and I need an online homework system that complements my institutional biases. I'd rather have fewer options from an instructor's point of view if the system was extremely pleasing for students to use.
  4. Well-done video lecture-ettes on key concepts from the course. These are only useful if the presentation is compelling and engaging; I'd rather see them hire a professional actor teaching math from a well-written script than to have a math professor who understands what he's saying. Every video of this sort that I've even seen has been "hosted" by a man; I bet you that most of the students in engineering calculus would much rather have, say, Angelina Jolie lecturing them about the chain rule. Videos should be in a format that plays nice with Quicktime, and they should be licensed in such a way that institutions that have adopted the book can distribute them to students to have on their iPods.
  5. Finally: test banks, sample class activities, etc. Most of the time I have a very good idea of what I want to do in class, but sometimes it's nice to have the Big Binder of Stewart. The Big Binder is one of the nicest ancillaries that I've seen. And multi-purpose, too: not only do I make extensive use of the groupwork problem when designing in-class worksheets, but right now my binder is covering the air conditioning vent that blows cold air on my feet while I sit at my desk.