Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Would You Use A Physics Digital Textbook?

With more and more universities and schools accommodating the use of tablets for their students, many textbooks publishers are beginning to migrate their books to be used on one of these devices. Certainly, right off the bat, one can see a convenience factor in not having to always carry these books, especially the heavy ones (Halliday and Resnick, anyone?).

The pain points of traditional print edition textbooks are obvious: For starters they're heavy, with the average physics textbook weighing in at a burdensome 3.6 pounds. They're also expensive, especially when you factor in the average college student's limited budget, typically costing hundreds of dollars every semester.
Even if it is just nothing more than an exact pdf duplicate of the textbook pages, it probably be something worthwhile IF it costs considerably less than the printed books. This of course, is not a guarantee since the price of electronic books and novels appear to be rather high so far.

Still, I think they can do a lot of more useful things for the electronic books version of physics texts. The most obvious ones would be to include videos, etc. as demos for various physical principles being discussed. One could even include a brief video of a lecture that corresponds to that particular topic in the chapter.
But the thing that I would like to see the most is a "live illustration" of examples being worked on. In most textbooks, examples are necessary to illustrate how a particular principle is used and applied. I don't know about you, but this is how I tend to learn and understand a particular topic. So I always want to see examples. It would be nice if the electronic text comes with an example that is worked out live, very much like having a private tutor sitting next to you and showing you how to solve a particular problem. I envision a blank page where the particular problem appears at the top, and then a voice would come on and start laying down the approach in solving the problem. What is the question asking for? What principle or idea is relevant? Where should we start? Why do we start here and not there? The text then draws a diagram (if necessary, which it usually is when tackling physics problems) and then writes down a general equation that is the starting point. It then solves it, showing step-by-step operation as it goes along, with an audio accompaniment, just as if someone is right next to you showing you how it is done.

As a bonus, it would be nice to include other ways to solve the problem. For example, in solving a projectile motion problem, we often can pick many different locations for specifying the origin of our coordinate axes, and even what direction we designate as positive, etc. It would be nice if the electronic text can show different ways to solve the same problem so that it gets drilled into the student that a lot of these things are arbitrary, but you still get the same answer in the end. Doing this in print text would be tedious (and would kill even more trees).

Electronic textbooks are still in its infancy. Maybe in a few years, we get might start to see some of the astounding capabilities that it can do.



Peeter Joot said...

It's hard to beat the quick search by page-flip that you can do with a print version of a text that you've poured though during a course, especially if you've marked it up, and made notes about all the typos.

However, even without more fancy interactive features, I'd love to have a pdf version of all the hardcopy books I have so I could easily haul around a reference library to classes on a laptop or smaller device.

madscientistlair said...

I personally would only go for it if I could get a DRM free version of the book in a reasonably standardized format. If I'm going to pay $100 for a book (that seems to be a reasonable price given the google market), I'd like one that I feel is actually "mine" and will last, rather than something that google / amazon / apple can take away from me at a moment's notice, and/or stop supporting so I can't read it anymore.
Also I really just like the look of building my own physics library.

Clara, alias Nemo said...

My favorite digital and free physics textbook remains www.motionmountain.net But it still lacks the exercise solutions you ask for. It has embedded movies, though.