Open textbook innovation in mathematics

maths textbook screenshot

Screenshot of A First Course in Linear Algebra

Last week members of the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) and members of the ROER4D team attended the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Mathematics & Applied Mathematics Department’s first “Teaching Tea” of the year to hear about open textbooks from visiting lecturer Professor Rob Beezer from the University of Puget Sound.

Rob has produced an interactive online open textbook, A First Course in Linear Algebra, that grants others permission to copy, distribute and/or modify this resource under the terms of a GNU Free Documentation License. His reasons for creating this open textbook include its portability (small file size), interoperability (can be used on a laptop, tablet or phone), currency (content can be corrected and updated instantly), accuracy (crowd-sourced proofreading), availability (it is free to the user), openness (“never out-of-print”) and its intellectual honesty (because the author is liberated from the pressure of publisher endorsement and commercial profit).

The open textbook is authored in PreText, a XML application that combines the functionality of DocBook, LaTeX and HTML, providing authors with a wide range of functionality that emphasises the separation of content from presentation, and can be made available in offline PDF and EPUB formats. The code is shared on GitHub. One interesting strategy he highlighted was incentivising his students to proofread the text by offering a financial reward for spotting errors.

It was useful to hear about this model of open textbook development as CILT staff members support ongoing, innovative initiatives for open textbook development. The comprehensive functionality facilitated by the use of XML has exciting ramifications for how digital/open textbook authoring and publication can build on traditional publishing systems and deliver flexible, adaptable and reusable educational resources for educators and students.

Rob’s approach has assisted the UCT Maths Department in its thinking about how to develop their own open textbooks, with senior lecturer Dr Claire Blackman planning to adopt PreText as an authoring tool. Sharing knowledge about how to author open textbooks appears to be reaping dividends and is an important part of advocacy for open textbooks and open educational practices.

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