I’ve been kicking around some ideas to avoid (for the students) the incredibly high cost of the texts I was planning on using next semester in Modern Physics and Theoretical Mechanics. I wanted to get some of the thoughts down here and get some feedback, if possible.
Why do I like free? Well, it is nice to be nice to the students, and it’s nice to know that they’ll actually have the book, since often they just don’t buy it. But it’s also great to have a book that allows you to digitally augment it and to project in class. I used that to great effect last semester in Physical Optics with this awesome free optics book.
Old Modern Physics
For Modern Physics, I was trying to decide between what I usually use (Eisberg and Resnick), what my colleague most recently used (Serway), something with spin first (maybe the 6 ideas book, though I think that’s too low of a level), and something totally free.
For now, I think I’ll use the 1961 early version of the Eisberg text, because it’s free and in pdf form online. Flipping through it, it seems to be close enough to the ’80’s Eisberg and Resnick text, plus it has a chapter or two on relativity, whereas the later one relegates that to a terse appendix.
It’s interesting, of course, to think about a 50 year old book used in a “Modern Physics” course, but most of us know that old joke.
Wikipedia is what they read anyways
I recently read how wikipedia is darn near comprehensive. I was pretty impressed with the numbers in that article, and it caused me to reflect on how I almost always find things that I’m looking for when I use it, especially when it comes to the topics I teach. I’ve used it a ton when preparing lectures/class activities, as there are often different explanations of things I’m not as familiar with than the text I’m using.
What I wondered is whether I could leverage Wikipedia to let me go without my $250 text for Theoretical Mechanics ($90 is the cheapest I saw on Amazon for my usual text). I did a quick google search along the lines of “combine wikipedia articles” and found out that wikipedia itself provides a “create book” option. So I dug in, and, from a technology perspective, I was pretty impressed. It doesn’t just paste in the multiple articles you flag, it really re-formats them for the printed page, and strips out things that wouldn’t make sense (like the table of contents links at the top of each page). It also lets you organize the material by adding in chapter headings, and it makes a nice table of contents for the entire “book.” You can download it as a pdf or as a few different e-book formats.
My first attempt at using this was to try to recreate a chapter from the text I use. I chose the “calculus of variations” chapter, and made some decent headway on wikipedia. I then went on to look at the “central forces” chapter. Again, I was mostly happy. You can see the result of both of those here.
I moved on from there to the first (non-math) chapter on Newton’s laws. I wasn’t as happy here because the articles I found seemed to have too much tangential material. Here’s my stab at that. If I were to use that, I’d likely have to filter the pages I would want my students to read before coming to class.
Focus on standards
Then I hit on a really interesting idea. What if I used my standards for the class as the focus, instead of the chapters in the text that I’m used to? This idea felt very freeing to me, as I realized that even the text I use really has some material that causes my students to lose focus from what we’ve collectively decided is important. I figure I could collect articles that would provide help/context/explanation for a particular standard, and likely augment that with examples, videos, etc from me. For the moment, at least, I’m going to give that plan a try and see how I feel about the wikipedia books that I’ll create.
There are some issues with the wikipedia books I thought I’d mention here as well. First, the hyperlinks are mostly lost, making the books less useful than just a collection of hyperlinks pointing to the original source. On the other hand, the formatting looks great, and the students can have a small pdf with exactly what’s needed when they come to class to work on activities.
Second, you have to create the books all in one sitting, as you can’t seem to rely on the cookies to remember where you were at. One book seemed to be remembered for a couple of days as I kept going back to the site, but then later that same day it just disappeared. If you’re an “authorized” user of wikipedia (at least 4-day-old account with at least 10 edits), you do get a save button. However, I’ve never edited wikipedia so I’m not sure if I want to get to the 10-edits level. For this new standards-based approach (as opposed to the chapter-based approach) I think doing it in one sitting is likely very possible.
What do you think?
I’d love to hear what you think about these two approaches I’m considering for next year. Do you try to minimize student costs? Do you assign secondary (or more) texts? Do you trust Wikipedia? Have you tried forgoing texts entirely for courses like this? Do you see these sorts of texts as great reference materials that physics majors should own?