Books Where None Have Gone Before

Personalized collections linked to the internet
Henry R. Bungay

Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY 12180-3590
While some authors prefer to charge a modest sum for their intellectual property and publish for portable reading devices, others provide free open-source textbooks on the internet. With no cost for printing and shipping and modest management costs, an eBook downloaded from the internet may well make conventional publishing of expensive textbooks obsolete [1,2]. However, existing eBooks have not yet sufficiently addressed material on the internet, and a wiser alternative may be a new breed of electronic books that are far superior to today's textbooks [3]. Consider a low-cost electronic book that can be copied for free and that uses the internet for collecting open-access information to supplement and improve it. In other words, a synergistic combination of a traditional textbook and the world-wide web.

There is nothing novel about books as electronic files, and some use hyperlinks. When portable reading devices use proprietary file formats, an author may be locked into doing business with them. Although a common format such as LaTex or pdf files might improve cross-platform compatibility [4], there is already Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) that can be read with any internet browser be it on a computer or portable device. This brings into play using hyperlinks when a book is on-line to the internet to have its resources as extensions to reinforce the topics. Although it is not possible to change pages that are on the internet without proper permissions, downloading permits editing and reorganization, but assembling the equivalent of a textbook would be a tiresome chore.

Books on compact disks are also common, but a book on a flask drive has novelty. Scientists and engineers browse the internet almost every day, and a textbook can be a scaffold for both traditional information and internet resources. When the book is on a flash drive, its owner can create a super book by editing its existing pages, capturing fresh material, adding notes and class handouts, and authoring new topics. Because the book occupies relatively little digital memory, much of the flash drive is available for customization. For example, my books have about 3 gigabytes unused on a 4 gigabyte flash drive.

I do not endorse free books and hope that authors will receive some modest compensation. File size matters when downloading, and errors can creep in while capturing a gigabyte of files for pages with hundreds of images for a book in HTML. Rather than buy your own flash drive and download a book to it, you might as well buy it already on a flash drive.

Science and engineering instruction use equations, mathematics, tables, and images to a great extent and are the focus of this discussion. However, authors in other fields should consider flash drives. The piles of compact disks for art instruction, for music instruction, or for language instruction can be replaced by one flash drive. Books on flash drives are bad news for commercial publishers because of easy duplication. Do not be confused by encrypted flash drives because they are de-encrypted BEFORE insertion at a computer port. A pirate could purchase one and copy the de-encrypted content at will. Of course, a pirate could accomplish the same thing by copying the entire set of compact disks to one flash drive.

Hyperlinks to the internet have obvious enhancement for courses in music, architecture, business, and just about any discipline. Rather than display my ignorance, I leave it to the reader to exploit books on flash drives for other disciplines.

Science and Engineering Textbooks


Fig.1 Typical page for collecting weekly material

Figure 1 illustrates well the concept of a dynamic, evolving book, but the hyperlinks in Fig. 1 should have additional explanations; students should be told to add a sentence or two when they follow the samples in the book to their source pages.

Each week of class lectures corresponds to its page in the book designed for reader input. The instructor can make life easier for students by providing handouts, assignments, homework problems, solutions of problems, and the like in electronic format so that text does not have to be retyped. The e-mail addresses for the entire class can be compiled so that one mailing reaches them all. No instruction is needed for learning how to add new material to the flash drive because the reader can see examples while the file is in a word-processing program. Those who resist learning HTML can simply enclose their text between the commands < pre> and < /pre>, the HTML way of indicating that the words are preformatted and not to be subjected to the usual means for displaying text.

Learning any HTML can be circumvented with one of the word processing programs that can save as a web page, but pages already on a flash drive should be edited with care because a powerful word processing program such as Microsoft Word saves a web page as a large file with all sorts of unneeded commands that hinder finding your own text. I create relatively tiny files with as few HTML commands as possible using a more primitive word processing program, Microsoft WordPad, and append .htm while saving.

Expecting the reader to manage material on the flash drive may sound unattractive, but doing so fosters learning. It is becoming common for students to bring their computer or similar device to class so that notes end up as computer files. Moving them to your customized book and editing them while they are fresh is better than pouring over them right before an exam. Lazy students may shun taking notes when they can get good notes from a classmate but may soon realize that someone else's notes are less powerful than your own for earning good grades. Even more effective is integrating new material with old. For example, the instructor could assign as homework the improvement of a page. The student would certainly benefit from more exposure to the topic and should exercise critical thinking.

Long after taking a course, there should be many occasions where a person runs across information and thinks that it belongs in the book that started when taking that course. When not suited for cutting and pasting, documents can be scanned to be added as images. Contrast this with packing notes, reprints, news clippings, and the like into folders in a file cabinet to languish and to be buried amidst other items of varying relevance.

Some judgment should guide the selection of what merits downloading from the internet. For example, Wikipedia seems here to stay, and YouTube may also be permanent. There is no need to download anything from Wikipedia, and what you capture may become outdated while the version at Wikipedia is new. Videos on the internet are a different matter because the authors may delete them. Although videos take up too much memory to have more than a few of them on the flash drive, it makes sense to capture those whose loss would vex you.

When an author produces a video, it is wise to upload it to YouTube and to hyperlink to it because there is no compatibility problem; its videos run on all browsers. YouTube has had a profound influence on my books because there are so many videos about analytical procedures, factories, installations, and equipment. Some of pages that had my animations were scrapped and replaced by hyperlinks because videos on the internet, either at YouTube or on pages from manufacturers, were better and more professional. For example in environmental engineering, there are dozens of videos showing entire treatment plants or steps for treatment from all around the world that convey a true sense of practicality. Other videos are sketches with animation and good explanations.

Videos of class room lectures should be superior to live lectures that have timing that is the same for all students but too fast for some and too slow for others. The video can be rewound to repeat sections that were not understood well the first time around or fast forwarded when the viewer skips sections of minor interest. However, even videotaped lectures of master teachers tend to be unpopular with students. My take on this is too much exposure on television to talking heads who earned their jobs in competition with a multitude of other aspiring talking heads. Few teachers have a voice, mannerisms, and delivery technique to appeal to jaded viewers. The implication is that pages in a book should have features that capture attention.

Pages that do something special

Several programming languages can merge with HTML to create web pages that interact with the reader. I use Javascript and have authored over fifty interactive pages so that the reader can specify coefficients to observe how graphs change, can watch a magic blackboard as equations are derived, see animations, and play educational games.

My fields of biochemical engineering and environmental engineering are well-suited for teaching with simulations based on differential equations. An example is shown in Fig. 2 for simulation of microbial growth and nutrient uptake versus time. The student manipulates coefficients in the differential equations to observe the effects and to prepare for test questions that ask for explanations for the shapes of the curves. I have several dozen pages of this type.

Fig. 2 Typical simulation exercise in Javascript

It is not so easy to devise computer games with educational value, but a few of mine are successful. My FERMT game first appeared in BASIC [5], and the page for Javascript version is shown in Fig.3.

Fig. 3 Typical educational game

A game that is fun to play can be addictive and may teach effectively. The FERMT game introduces fermentation jargon and mimics the assignment of formulating a good recipe for optimized profitably in large fermenters. The game has been played by thousands of students around the world.

Sound clips are relatively unimportant for books for science and engineering except for teaching correct pronunciation. I recall a professor whose talk called hydrolysate hydro lysate and a German speaker saying deb briss instead of debris.

Security

Make a copy of the book on a flash drive just in case. Having information on a flash drive and not in the memory of a computer reduces clutter and expedites searching for files because file searches on the computer may invoke large portions of its memory. With encouragement for collecting information from the internet to enhance the book, security becomes an issue because some such material may be malicious with the intent of harming your computer. The flash drive can be scanned quickly for malware; this is recommended after a session of surfing the internet to download information for your book. A scan of your computer tends to be so slow that you procrastinate.

An author assumes responsibility for the book purchased through legitimate channels, but copies from other sources may have dangerous files. The risk is far less when files are downloaded to the flash drive, but some malware can still access the operating system. Much depends on what is downloaded. For example, web pages in HTML have source code that controls the display only. However, links on those pages may attempt to fetch dangerous files. Google Chrome combats this by isolating downloaded files until the authorized owner deals with them. This internet browser and some others disable questionable features of Javascript. I learned this the hard way by wasting hours trying to get frames in Javascript to communicate with each other until finally a student with better programming skills taught me that this feature had been crippled for the browser because there was a risk that frames on a distant computer could be contacted and these might have malware.

The PowerPoint presentations in my books are intended to serve as templates that the instructor should modify for class lectures to match the goals of the course. Readers are discouraged from considering them as first sources because you can imagine how a slide lecture will fail without the author present to explain with emphasis and digressions. Although the presentation has value especially when the student uses it for review, a PowerPoint presentation without a speaker falls flat.

A wise author should not solicit more such presentations for a flash drive book because of security risks and copyright issues. Why take the responsibility for foreign files when they can be left on their author's web sites? I am eager to learn of more PowerPoint presentations on the internet and will be delighted to add links in my books and to credit the authors. All of us can be careless about intellectual property when adding images and quotations to our presentations, and I decline taking responsibility for other authors failing to obtain proper permissions. Furthermore, the owner of intellectual property is unlikely to prosecute occasional misuse but might be upset by a book full of transgressions.

Updates

With so many hyperlinks that some have errors and because of disappearances of pages from the internet, textbooks need to be updated by periodic replacement of pages and additions of new ones. Updates for my books are in an archive on the mainframe computer of my university. Hard copy textbooks cannot be updated and enrich publishing companies as new editions appear.

Economics

The retail price for a four megabyte flash drive in a plastic bubble package is roughly $8 or more, and sold in bulk they cost less than $3 each. An author could show a modest profit by selling flash drives that house a book at the retail price, and the buyer would not suffer much loss should the book not prove its worth because it can be erased to have a useful ordinary flash drive.

Many of my pages started as student term projects that are slightly modified and are acknowledged in the book. The problem is that I don't own them. The solution in my case is to forget making money and all profits from sales go to the H. P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering. This is not much of a hardship because I have earned little money from my four textbooks that were published by and promoted by established companies.

Why pay anything for a textbook when there are some complete textbooks for free on the internet? I surmise that the authors of free textbooks were unable to find publishers and sought solace or revenge by placing the book on the internet. To customize such a book, you have to move it to your computer or to a read/write device such as a flash drive. A book that is already on a flash drive and that is designed for customization saves considerable time. By the way, some of the pages in free textbooks are superior to my pages and could easily be captured from the internet and used as replacement pages.

There is not yet a marketing method for a book on a flash drive, and commercial publishers will show little interest in an inexpensive book that never requires another edition. I list my books on eBay to simplify sales and marketing.

The Future

Some students enjoy the feel of a conventional textbook, perhaps as a form of security blanket. When moving through a college campus today, you are impressed by the heavy backpacks used for transportation of textbooks and a computing device. However, electronic books facilitate navigation without the need to have your fingers or slips of paper inserted to get from one page to another. Imagine substituting flash drive textbooks in your pocket for massive hard-copy books in a backpack.

Students are going to share and will divide up assignments. When they correct an error on a page or find valuable information on the internet, they will pass it on to their friends. An instructor should assist this by collecting and distributing the best improvements to the entire class. This will evolve to a textbook that is better than the original.

Instructors without the time or incentives for writing books and some enterprising students will undertake the far more modest task of authoring a page or two and will add slightly to their reputations should others like the results. All it takes is to give the new page the same name as the old page, cut and paste the hyperlinks for navigation, and copy it to the correct location on the flash drive to make a change. I would encourage the use of footnotes on the new page, for example "Replacement page for (file name) in the book 'J. Doe, Principles of Galactic Zoology' ".

My eBooks have no restrictions on copying or distribution. For those aspiring authors who seek fame through having their book adopted widely, an eBook with no restrictions can advance them toward their goal in stages. With the eBook as the template, a customized version aimed at their own course can be tested and improved. Asking the opinions of others should inspire them to contribute in ways that will create books that outshine by far the books now in circulation. Over time, all or most of the original pages will be replaced as a book evolves. Another author can put my pages in a new book and should kindly acknowledge the originals. My updates on the mainframe computer at my university will become obsolete as better update sites created by younger and more modern authors compete with me. If the fate of my pages is to become footnotes in future books, so be it.

Bibliography

  1. Harris, D. and Schneegurt, M.A., The Other Open-Access Debate, American Scientist 104: 334-110 336 (2016)
  2. Mills, M. S. (2016). A Case for Authoring Multi-Touch Interactive Open Educational 112 Resources. TechTrends, 60(5), 456-464.
  3. Phillies, G., (2017) "Win-win Textbooks" Sci. Amer. 105-1, 3
  4. Baglione, S. L., & Sullivan, K. (2016). Technology and Textbooks: The Future. American Journal of Distance Education, 30(3), 145-155
  5. Bungay, H.R., "FERMT, A Computer Game Based on Fermentation Process Development", Process Biochemistry, 6: 38 (1971).

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This discussion was general for all science and engineering and not a promotion for my books. However, you can get blurbs for my books at:
Sample pages
and
YouYube video