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What textbooks need to really fit students’ and educators’ needs

Physics Professor Ulrich Zürcher, the author of the free textbook "Algebra-Based College Physics: Part I - Mechanics to Thermal Physics" Physics Professor Ulrich Zürcher, the author of the free textbook “Algebra-Based College Physics: Part I – Mechanics to Thermal Physics”

When it comes to textbooks, we mostly hear about students’ opinions. But what do educators who have to work with these textbooks on a daily basis think about the material available? We wanted to find out and asked Professor Ulrich Zürcher from the Dept. of Physics of Cleveland State University (Cleveland, OH, US) who recently held a presentation for the American Physical Society in Maryland on distance and online learning. Don’t miss this exclusive interview!


1. As a teacher, do you think the standard textbooks available meet the needs of both students and teachers?

Standard textbooks are too costly and too lengthy. Many students at comprehensive universities are often starved for time and money, so these factors are important when considering a textbook. Frequently, new editions are published, often with minor changes: they do not reflect a demand from students but are largely market-driven.


2. Do you have personal experience of students who cannot afford textbooks?

Cost is an important issue for many of my students.  While $200 or more for a textbook and online homework access does not sound as much, most students take two or more courses that require such a package. This means that the total cost can become a serious issue for them, especially those who are not eligible for financial aid.


3. Do you have a say in what textbooks your students have to read? In your opinion, do you think educators have enough choice in what textbooks they can offer their students?

For lower-level courses, one instructor frequently teaches only a single section so that the selection of the textbook is often made by “committee;” this creates inertia. In my case, the choice of textbook is based largely by the choice of online grading system.


4. If you would have the chance to address publishers, what would you say should be changed to make the learning experience for students easier and cheaper?

Write books that cover the topics that are actually covered; this can be done on less than half the pages of a standard textbook. The textbook should cover the basic topics, rather than include applications that are only marginally relevant; the latter should be eliminated.


5. How do teachers benefit from modern learning methods such as free and short online textbooks like the ones provides?

A greater variety of free quality online sources for students greatly benefit them as it increases the likelihood that they will find the format that fits their needs. These sources can provide them with invaluable basic material. Teachers benefit as they can spend precious class time on problem-solving and discuss context-rich problems.


6. How important is it to offer students a variety of textbooks to fit their individual needs?

Even small changes in an explanation can make a big difference; I speculate that researchers from cognitive science have studied this. This is perhaps best illustrated by my personal experience as a student. I had a math professor [for complex analysis] who gave very clear lectures, but was seemingly unable to rephrase his explanations into an even slightly different way. When I went to meet him in his office, he repeated word for word what he had said in lecture! This left me frustrated and no closer to understanding the material.

As a teacher, I strive not to repeat myself when a student comes for help. Likewise, a greater variety of sources is a great way to help students to master a difficult subject. One author may choose a slightly different graph or illustrative example, etc. than the ones found in a classic resource. It all comes down to what “clicks” for a student.


7. What advice do you give students who ask for alternative learning resources?

Usually students are already familiar with Khan Academy and the like. If they are not, then I tell them about them and encourage them to use online sources; however, I also caution them since online sources can be of questionable quality.


8. In your speech you also talked about a possible lack of quality, which can be the downside of more publishers and textbooks. What could a “quality control” look like?

If students are getting used to multiple sources, then quality and the expected rigor become an issue. One can easily find “resources” on the Internet that are misleading, or even (partially) incorrect. Quality is perhaps the biggest advantage of standard textbooks; they have been vetted through a comprehensive review, have often been “cleaned” up through numerous editions, and their coverage of topics has the expected depth. requires authors to deliver manuscripts reviewed by arm’s length experts, similar to a peer-review process for scientific journals.  In my area [physics], peer-review for some online material exists [Compadre, LON-CAPA], but I am not sure whether peer-review for online teaching material exists in other disciplines.

The material’s rigor is also essential; for example, the degree of difficulty of problems involving Newton’s laws can greatly vary; this means that standards need to be established for the material targeted for a specific course. For example, the physics texts in the “Book for Dummies” series is not suitable for an algebra or calculus based introductory physics course, since they do not cover the learning outcomes for these courses.


9. What is your prediction about how students will learn and educators will teach in 20 years?

It certainly appears that online learning has the flavor of a “disruptive technology”, and that the days of an educator reading off a Powerpoint presentation in a darkened lecture hall are numbered. Online learning is going to replace this type of courses. This is certainly a very good change.

“Learning” means mastering a subject, which I consider to be the most challenging and the most exciting part of teaching.  For most students, this aspect cannot be entirely replaced by online tools. That’s why I see the future in a blended environment, where online tools are combined with “real life” sessions. There is no “one size fits all,” and the balance between the need for online and real life will vary between instructors/students.

Professor Ulrich Zürcher is the author of the free textbook “Algebra-Based College Physics: Part I – Mechanics to Thermal Physics“. Take a look inside.