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Teachers Write an Open Textbook In a Weekend Hackathon 109

Posted by Soulskill
from the get-it-right-the-first-time dept.
linjaaho writes "A group of Finnish mathematics researchers, teachers and students write an upper secondary mathematics textbook in a three-day booksprint. The event started on Friday 28th September at 9:00 (GMT+3) and the book will be (hopefully) ready on Sunday evening. The book is written in Finnish. The result — LaTeX source code and the PDF — is published with open CC-BY-license. As far as the authors know, this is the first time a course textbook is written in three-day hackathon. The hackathon approach has been used earlier mainly for coding open source software and writing manuals for open source software. The progress can be followed by visiting the repository at GitHub or the project Facebook page."
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Teachers Write an Open Textbook In a Weekend Hackathon

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 29, 2012 @06:03PM (#41501869)

    Finnish it... Get it? Finnish... it?

  • The US could learn a lot from the Finnish approach to education...
    • The US could learn a lot from the Finnish approach to education...

      We have. We're Finnish-ed with the whole concept of bothering with education at all. Politics is so much more German to our continued failure to thrive as a country.

      • You can try and Sweden it any way you like, but there's Norway I'd swallow that load of Boche!

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 29, 2012 @06:08PM (#41501909)

    The main thing which distinguishes a paedagogical material from bad paedagogical material is care.

    There are lots of people who know lots of stuff. Almost all these people are able to quickly write down some information relating to this stuff quickly if you give them vague outlines.

    But teaching is an interactive process, and finding out what teaching material works means spending time with students and developing your material based on that experience.

    And then updating it regularly to reflect feedback.

    I am a mathematics graduate and I could knock together an introduction to lots of things in a weekend. Hell, when chatting with intelligent researchers in other disciplines, I have done "introduction to blah" on-the-spot lectures *literally* on the back of a napkin in canteens or whatever. I really don't think I managed to convey enough to give the audience a solid foundation, and it certainly wouldn't have worked at a secondary school level where I don't know that I'm talking to exceptionally bright people.

    • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @06:30PM (#41502007)
      Perhaps they've been teaching stuff for quite some time and now they're simply putting their notes together.
    • The main thing which distinguishes a paedagogical material from bad paedagogical material is care.

      Careful, you can go to prison in the UK for using words like that.

      The USA is the land of the free, so there you can only be fired for it.

    • Heartily agree.

      This is an interesting approach, but I think it can only be a first cut and will likely die unless there's some mechanism for continuous revision based on in-class experience.
  • Hackathon? Booksprint?

    When did mundane events and tasks become faddish?

    • It all started with the success of the X games. Now we have extreme librarianism. Just don't mess with Conan the Librarian.
  • > The book is written in Finnish.

    When did they finnish it?

  • Is it any good? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @06:54PM (#41502147) Journal
    Richard Feynman is probably the most famous person to complain about textbooks, but he wasn't complaining about closed source, he was complaining because they weren't any good [textbookleague.org].

    So the question remains, is this textbook any good?
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I think the basis for his complaints were that the people writing the books didn't know the field they were writing about. In this case the people behind the project are graduate students in math, one professor, a few Ph.D's and some teachers. I would guess that the problems with quality will not be of the type Feynman was complaining about, rather problems might occur with explanations that aren't detailed enough or lack the polish that inevitably follows from a project like this. However, if they put up a

      • The problem with writing a textbook like this is that you need to know two fields: the topic of the textbook and education. It's very easy to find people who know one, finding people who know both is hard. It's also really hard to correctly pitch textbooks aimed at children so that they're approachable without being patronising. There's a reason I stick to writing books for adults: it's orders of magnitude easier.
        • The problem with writing a textbook like this is that you need to know two fields: the topic of the textbook and education.

          I am not so sure about that. Having a teacher educated about education (i.e., having a degree in education) is negatively correlated with student performance.

          • by tilante (2547392)
            You're confusing knowing a field with having been educated in it. ;-)
          • Having a teacher educated about education (i.e., having a degree in education) is negatively correlated with student performance.

            Sure there shouldn't be an only in there somewhere?

            This flies in the face of common sense. Knowing something extra is unlikely to impact performance negatively; at worst, it'll be irrelevant to the task in hand, i.e. there'll be no beneficial effect.

            Perhaps if you supplied a source we could check for ourselves.

        • by volmtech (769154)
          If the students realize they are being patronized you are either a poor writer or the students are too old for the material any way.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fermion (181285)
      One thing that is good about it is that it is in LaTeX. That means that it could, for instance, be put on Github, and changes made and committed. This is different from so many other books that are written in,. say MS Word, that are less easily revisioned.

      So quality is going to depend on basic initial construction and how much buy there is to improve the book. From my experience, there is often s good amount of personality conflicts in these things. The reason we have commercial books is because power

      • Re:Is it any good? (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Unnngh! (731758) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @11:39PM (#41503605)
        I hate reviewing LaTeX documents, as the software doesn't come with any revisioning/collaboration tools to speak of. Word, on the other hand, PITA though it may be, comes with very good tools via track changes and comments. Not revisioning in the sense of version control, but in the sense of what most people actually need for document editing. For an open textbook a VCS would work great, but it's overkill for smaller, article-length papers.
        • You mean it needs something like... Git?

        • Re:Is it any good? (Score:4, Informative)

          by TheRaven64 (641858) on Sunday September 30, 2012 @03:49AM (#41504511) Journal

          You are doing it wrong. LaTeX is source code and so it can be put in any revision control system. We store a load of LaTeX documents in svn and it's very easy to review minor changes just by reading the commit emails. You can't do that with something like Word - everyone needs to check out the document and open it in Word. For reviewing larger sets of changes, I use the latexdiff tool. This annotates changed sections between two arbitrary versions. For stuff I'm sending off to my publisher, I just add change bars so that the copyeditor or proofreader can recheck those sections. For things I'm editing collaboratively, I'll make it highlight the old and new text.

          I've also done collaborative work with Word and it was painful in comparison. The rest of the company agreed, and later paid me to produce a custom LaTeX document class for them that matched their publication style so that they could ditch Word. If you have more than two people collaborating, then the Word model is very cumbersome.

      • One thing that is good about it is that it is in LaTeX. That means that it could, for instance, be put on Github, and changes made and committed. This is different from so many other books that are written in,. say MS Word, that are less easily revisioned.

        I can fault MS Word for a lot of things, but it was Word's built-in version tracking that helped bring down the author of the "Love" malware.

        It's not an independent VCS - and one person in the chain can wipe the history - but it's still good enough for informal collaboration, it's automatic, doesn't require all participants to have accounts in a VCS, supports out-of-line commentary, and easy to use.

        Still, for something more format, a real VCS is preferable. Many modern-day VCS systems can do binary diffs to

    • Re:Is it any good? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Saturday September 29, 2012 @09:10PM (#41502945)

      I can appreciate this. Having just completed a physics masters, I am well acquainted with trying to find textbooks on various things, often referring to the Big Names In Physics Textbooks - that is Landau/Lifshitz, Griffiths, Hecht, Goldstein, Sakurai and the list goes on. The problem is that very few books are written to the levels that students need them.

      Introductory undergraduate texts are often superficial enough for a first pass, but quickly become doorstops (e.g. Young and Freedman). Personally I still found them useful for occasional things, but by and large we forgot about them. When you graduate things become more tricky and you resort to reading peer publications and textbooks that fit your niche. This is tricky, but hey, it's research and you live with it. The problem is in between, those three or four years of undergrad where you need excellent concise explanations of, in reality, very complicated phenomena. Most of the time that simply doesn't exist.

      After four years of my degree I hit problems. I understood what was taught in the lectures, but I had problems applying the information to other things. Why? Because I found myself asking whether something was possible or not. This was especially apparent in General Relativity with tensor calculus, I was hesitant to work through equations because I wasn't sure whether I could do operation X or if such and such was valid. It's that horrible feeling of knowing enough about a topic to understand that what you're about to do is wrong, but not enough to know the solution.

      Let's take quantum mechanics as an example. The textbooks almost uniformly start in the same way, a quick overview of the observed phenomena, some stuff on wave-particle duality and a headfirst dive into the Schrödinger Equation followed by uses thereof. By the time you get to higher level QM and things like bra-ket notation is introduced, people get confused. They get even more confused when analogies to vectors start being bandied around and when operators come into the fray it gets worse. Why? Because they started the wrong way. Going in the other direction, the big well known books in QM are strictly graduate and often the people recommending them really have no idea what they're talking about. There simply aren't that many geniuses in most colleges/universities. Realistically 95% of students need simple, hand-holdy books with a lot of solid grounding.

      There is only one textbook I've found at an undergraduate level that remedies this for QM, and that's Shankar. Whereas most books begin with historical waffle, Shankar immediately dives in with mathematics. Quantum mechanics barely gets mentioned until the third chapter. Why is this? Because it lets you get your head around the idea of a vector "not being a stick with an arrow" as he puts it. Once you understand that a vector is simply a mathematical object that obeys a set of rules and that position vectors happen to obey them also, things get easier. The second chapter is still no quantum and in fact deals with Hamiltonian mechanics, I know of no other book that does this in quite this way. As a result, by the time you get to introducing quantum effects, it is easy to explain the Schrödinger equation in terms of abstract maths and solving problems becomes more straight forward. In fact, you realise that you learned about operator notation, eigenvector/value/functions before you even learned about the wavefunction and it's simply a matter of applying your knowledge.

      The rest of the book is fairly self explanatory, all the usual topics are covered in a decent amount of detail although there is no field theory. But that's not the point. The point is that the reader is given a rigorous mathematical explanation of the physics before the physics is taught. As a result, the physics becomes almost trivial and you can understand why things connect the way they do.

      Extend this to the rest of textbooks and you have your problem. Authors need to step into the students' shoes a

    • by Bruce Perens (3872) <bruce@perens.com> on Saturday September 29, 2012 @09:50PM (#41503135) Homepage Journal
      If you want Open Textbooks, and there are many reasons to want them, you should not start by announcing to the world that you wrote the complete thing in a three day sprint. That's just handing a line to the commercial publishers to use in opposing such works.

      If you are not going to do everything that a commercial publisher and their authors would do to ensure the quality of the work, please don't tell the world about it. Just put the work up for people to fix, and let them announce it when they're satisfied with it.

      • You have a good point that it isn't good to write them all at once. Isn't one of open source's strong points is that things only get better over time with more people checking for errors and polishing the product?
        • Isn't one of open source's strong points is that things only get better over time with more people checking for errors and polishing the product?

          Absolutely.

          And I don't object to having a three-day sprint to do the work that they did. But almost the entire announcement is about its being written in 3 days, and I do object to the announcement being written that way.

          Next time, I think there should be more thought about what they're trying to sell to their country, what their opponents will say and how to de

          • by puhuri (701880)

            Many of those who are participating have experience on writing commercial i.e. closed text books and the work estimate is reasonable. With that group the amount of work done in a weekend is the same or larger that is done by the author on text book. Probably part of illustrations and editing work made by publisher will be missing by end of weekend. The text and content looks reasonable as I just pulled it from github and compiled.

            There has already been lots of discussion in local media "those are stealing m

            • Like a lot of "too good to be true" things, I suspect that the REAL time involved was more than just the 3 days.

              If someone called me up, said "we're going to be writing a book this weekend, can you do X"? then yes, I could probably slam out a chapter in 3 days. but that's not counting the in-between time where I'd be getting my thoughts together and digging out the notes I'd want to use.

              Nor would it be counting the time spent getting people selected to sign up or determining who's doing what.

            • by volmtech (769154)
              I'm just curious, why should a mathematics text be any different for Finland than America? 2 + 2 is 4 no mater which country you're doing the addition. Language and history text will of course differ but shouldn't math, physics, chemistry be universal, only needing the narration to be accurately translated into the local language? I understand wanting to employ local publishers but we buy your cell phones, you should buy our text books. Snide remarks about wanting the students to actually learn math will be
            • 5000 is a good size run for technical titles in the U.S. The publisher would be satisfied if they sold that many. I don't think most technical authors expect to support themselves by writing. They write to establish their credibility.
          • Isn't one of open source's strong points is that things only get better over time with more people checking for errors and polishing the product?

            Absolutely.

            And I don't object to having a three-day sprint to do the work that they did. But almost the entire announcement is about its being written in 3 days, and I do object to the announcement being written that way.

            Next time, I think there should be more thought about what they're trying to sell to their country, what their opponents will say and how to deal with that, and how they can promote that this is a continuing effort.

            I would agree that this sort of thing could be used to legitimize the idea of "9 women having a baby in 1 month". And, alas, probably will be.

            However, it's a false analogy in that what's being produced is not really a linear work or a work where there's tight coupling between the components. so it's not unreasonable that small teams could produce independent chapters in parallel (especially if they're working from existing notes), ship them out for review, then spend a day or so making sure that the book ha

      • I disagree. Part of the reason that publishers of this kind of book can get away with charging schools so much for books is the perception that writing a textbook is really hard. Showing you can get to a first draft state in three days then that shows how it might be a better investment for school systems to pay authors directly. A big part of the problem is that textbook prices are not itemised. If you're a school district that wants to buy, say, 10,000 textbooks, then you get quoted a price by the pub

      • > That's just handing a line to the commercial publishers to use in opposing such works.

        Given the ease of checking out the complete free work, I see more risks for the commercial publisher, if his product is not substantially better than a free offering hacked away in three days.

      • by JoonasD6 (912298)
        We wrote perhaps a 9 months' work in three days and you think publishers will mock this in an effective way? The PR has been enormously great and this gives the book even better chances to improve. :) Cleaning, editing and some graphics are still to be done, but it will still have been faster and better than our current books. And yet another great highlight of open materials which the general public don't really know about.
        • We wrote perhaps a 9 months' work in three days and you think publishers will mock this in an effective way?

          To establish my credibility, I have published 24 titles that are Open Source as the series editor of the book series that is named after me. I got a reputable publisher to take the series on my terms, and to use the Open Source license I recommended. All but one of these titles made money even though everyone is free to copy them.

          It is easy for people in the Open Source community to not understand

      • If you want Open Textbooks, and there are many reasons to want them, you should not start by announcing to the world that you wrote the complete thing in a three day sprint. That's just handing a line to the commercial publishers to use in opposing such works.

        Maybe not. But...:

        If you are not going to do everything that a commercial publisher and their authors would do to ensure the quality of the work...

        A teacher friend recently pointed out this quality of the work [tumblr.com] in textbooks to me. It seems like quality

        • My book series wasn't intended to be used as textbooks in school, but as references for professionals. But we published 24 of them, and if Microsoft tried to interfere we didn't notice. All 24 titles are Open Source.

          I think this Finnish group needs someone who is an insider on textbook selection committees to advise them. The last thing these committees want is to embarrass themselves by being seen to recommend a work that was produced in three days. They would lose their credibility, regardless of the qu

          • by joib (70841)

            I think this Finnish group needs someone who is an insider on textbook selection committees to advise them. The last thing these committees want is to embarrass themselves by being seen to recommend a work that was produced in three days. They would lose their credibility, regardless of the quality of the work.

            IIRC there are no textbook selection committees in Finland. Teachers are free to choose whichever book they want; or indeed to not choose any book at all and teach the class based on their own ma

            • Every teacher individually? Textbooks must teach to the content of the abitur and the standards being established by the Bologna Process. So, I guess the curricula are well defined. But I'm still surprised that this decision would be left to every teacher individually.
              • by joib (70841)
                Every teacher individually?

                AFAIU, yes. (That being said, while I have teached at the university level in Finland, I have no experience of the Finnish primary and high school system from the faculty viewpoint, so you might want to double-check with someone else). Also, consider that there are something like 5 million Finnish speakers, so it's not a particularly large market, so teachers are not exactly going to be overwhelmed by the number of available textbooks. E.g. in physics I think there are about

              • I'm too arrogant to accept that anywhere does things different to the US, even when people who live there tell me so, and despite the fact that I've never been there and couldn't even point to it on a map.

                FTFY.

    • by Seumas (6865)

      Well, yeah, if you are a genius mathematician or astronomer or physicist or programmer, why would you waste time you could spend making money, exploring the world, or reaching new intellectual heights so that you can write a book for a bunch of students to learn stuff that has become trivial to you (because you're probably working in a realm that wont' be relevant to a codified educational content for twenty more years).

      Anyway, in America, this would be deemed as something that should be presumed illegal to

      • You're criticizing Feynman for not spending time on this? Do you know how much time Feynman spent on textbook review? At least read what he wrote (it was linked to) before saying idiotic things. Not only that, he actually DID write a very good book about quantum mechanics.
    • by gl4ss (559668)

      it's for (what's essentially) the first course in high school "long" mathematics. I don't think they can fuck it up too much(there's really not that much to fuck up in it).
      as such though it's not very useful until they make the books for the rest of the courses(this is like 1/8th of the 3 year high school long mathematics).

      And "long" mathematics because we have this choice of doing "long" or "short" in some subjects, like chemistry, physics, and mathematics. And free textbooks that don't change every other

    • So the question remains, is this textbook any good?

      It doesn't beg the question? Bless you sir, bless you thrice, and bless the pudding that you eat.

  • Why is this considered a hackathon? Seems like the term "hack" is a little too cliche...kind of like "epic", "epic fail", etc. They wrote a textbook, wow. I wonder how many errors are in it and how biased it is. Prolly could use a little peer review but 3 days to fill a couple hundred pages...I mean "three days to hack some paper and not epic fail is swell."
    • I'm curious.
      How do you have a biased math textbook?
      No number 7s?

      • He means, it contains the authors' favourite topics related to the basic material, and doesn't contain the authors' least favourite topics. For example, in calculus, optimizing functions (finding the max or min) is an important application of calculus. So if a textbook doesn't mention this application because the author finds it uninteresting, that's an example of a biased textbook.
        • Right. I'm impressed the authors banged out a textbook in a couple days but does it encompass all the subject matter equally, does it not include errors, etc.? I think a more rigorous and structured approach for something as important as a textbook should be the preferred method.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I would have agreed with you a year ago, but read up on conservapedia's [scienceblogs.com] crazy leader.

      • by vlm (69642)

        How do you have a biased math textbook?

        One of the "jobs" available to teachers over the summer when I was a kid was multicultural review. I had an algebra (or was it geometry?) teacher who spent her summer determining the racial distribution of characters in word problems, for use in purchasing decisions and as justification that the old textbooks were obsolete. Also all minorities required to be displayed in a positive, superior manner, no hint of stereotypes allowed. Writing textbooks is actually quite restrictive and you need a team of qua

  • by happyhamster (134378) on Saturday September 29, 2012 @11:04PM (#41503469)

    It's going to end up being a steaming pile of crap, designed by a committee, rushed to finish. Why such a hurry? In my experience, great textbooks are labor of love of experts in the field with talent in writing.

    • Why such a hurry? It's a hackathon! So the answer is: just for fun!

      But anyway, Finns don't like to put out crap in general, so I predict there will still be quite good quality control. And if you need something that has been marinated for a longer time, there's plenty of textbooks available already.

    • by JoonasD6 (912298)

      It's going to end up being a steaming pile of crap, designed by a committee, rushed to finish. Why such a hurry? In my experience, great textbooks are labor of love of experts in the field with talent in writing.

      It won't end up being a steaming pile of crap for a simple reason: it continues to develop for longer than this weekend. This sprint was a separate interesting idea from the book being open.

  • Here's a English-language video from Vesa Linja-aho, the submitter and the main boss guy in this project: http://youtu.be/ThbUiky4AKA [youtu.be]

Today's scientific question is: What in the world is electricity? And where does it go after it leaves the toaster? -- Dave Barry, "What is Electricity?"

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