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Free textbooks: It can be done

April 22, 2009, 5:19 am

The last time I taught abstract algebra, I used no textbook but rather my own homemade notes. That went reasonably well, but in doing initial preps for teaching the course again this coming fall I realized my notes needed a serious overhaul; and since I’m playing stay-at-home dad to three kids under 6 this summer, this is looking more like a sabbatical project than something I can get done before August. So last month I set about auditioning textbooks.

I looked at the usual suspects — the excellent book by Joe Gallian which I’ve used before and really liked, Hungerford’s undergraduate text*, Rotman — but in the end,  I went with Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications by Tom Judson. I would say it’s comparable to Gallian, with a little more flexibility in the topic sequencing and a greater, more integrated treatment of applications to coding theory and cryptography. (This last was something I was really looking for.) There’s even a free companion to the book which incorporates Sage, which I am sorely tempted to use as well because learning Sage has been a pet project of mine.

But what’s really different about this book is that it’s free, licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. I am having the bookstore prepare print copies for the students — I asked the students if they wanted a print version in addition to the free PDF’s online, and they said “yes” — which the bookstore will sell for a whopping $16.95, just enough to cover the costs of copying and 3-hole punching the 400+ pages of the book. I’m happy because I found a book that really fits my needs; the students are happy because they get a good book too, for a tremendous bang-to-buck ratio.

In the long and contentious comment thread for my post about James Stewart’s new $24M mansion, I suggested that Stewart should consider topping off his impressive (and apparently lucrative) teaching and writing career by making his Calculus book freely available online for anybody who wants it. That suggestion was met with shocked incredulity: “If you had any idea how much work it was to write and maintain a textbook, you’d never consider making it free.” Well, I’m happy to report that hard work and good writing need not necessarily be mutually exclusive with giving it away.

In fact, as more well-written textbooks appear for free online — and there were even more free abstract algebra e-books I did not end up selecting — the commercial market might find itself in trouble.

* Actually, I requested the Hungerford algebra book, complete with a crystal-clear note that I needed to have it in hand by April 10 in order to be able to adopt it in time for our bookstore. To this date I have not received it. Another problem with commercial textbooks: the distribution model for review copies is dreadful. I’m always receiving multiple copies of books I neither need nor am interested in, and not getting the books I do need and am interested in.

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