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not MOOC-Wrecks! Hitting the Books

Prereqs – not MOOC-Wrecks! looks at ways to build the foundations for MOOCs that cover the more advanced materials you really want to study. In this three part series we’ll be discussing textbooks, open courseware, and other – less advanced – MOOCs, starting with the most traditional of these three options.

Perhaps by now you’ve experienced a MOOC-wreck. You embarked on your studies full of enthusiasm and confident of seeing it through to the end. But something went wrong, and in spite of the best intentions you became a statistic: part of the 90%+ attrition rate between signups and successful completions seen even among the most highly-rated MOOCs. More often than not – perhaps around 70% of the time, “life got in the way”. But lack of  – or rusty – knowledge of the basics that a subject builds upon can also be a big factor.

By now, I’ve become a statistic several times over. 

By now, I’ve become a statistic several times over.  Mostly it’s been without deep scars to the ego; I’ve been able to kid myself I wasn’t really that keen to finish, or blame – sometimes with reason – the quality of the course.  But one MOOC that got away… well, that hurt.  Let’s change the names to protect the innocent – the very dedicated professor who painstakingly developed the course – and call it “The Electric Koolaid Calculus Test”. I’d missed the official start, but even ten days into the course this cocky ex high-school math whiz was confident it would be a breeze…  How wrong could I be!

Well, with a little more preparation, the painful experience of repeatedly screwing up things I thought I’d pretty much mastered in my teens could have been avoided. A lack of prerequisities is avoidable, and in the 21st Century, there are more ways to acquire them and get the basis for further study than ever before. Let’s start with the oldest first – the textbook – before moving up the evolutionary scale and considering more recent options: open courseware and other MOOCs.

Now, new textbooks cost big money. A glance at their prices on Amazon will confirm this, but here’s a statistic: textbook prices are up over 800% over the past thirty years, more even than college tuition and healthcare costs.

Return to the (Secondhand) Source

Fortunately for a cost-conscious independent student, getting the latest edition often matters far less that getting a good textbook, and older editions can often be had for a few dollars on Amazon. Other good secondhand sources are abebooks, and if you’re outside the US – where shipping fees can be the main cost – Betterworldbooks offers low shipping rates, and lists prices including shipping making, comparison shopping easier. There are also websites offering rentals of new edition textbooks – again predominantly to North American customers – though a few month rental of a new edition can cost more than buying an older edition outright.

Finding a textbook that’s good for self-study turns out to be quite tricky. 

Unfortunately, finding a textbook that’s good for self-study turns out to be quite tricky. Many subject areas are covered by multiple textbooks. But most of these are bought for courses, so the reviews reflect that, and don’t focus on the texts’ suitability for the auto-didact. Recommendations from college professors can be valuable, but professors bring an intimate knowledge of their subject matter to these texts, and may miss the fine details that make the difference between a pedagogical hit and miss. So figuring out which textbooks are good for self-teaching can involve reading of a lot of reviews – Amazon & Goodreads are good sources.  The most relevant reviews come from reviewers who’ve used books for their own self-study, from a level of knowledge similar to yours. If those guys and gals could make it through that six hundred page doorstop, you stand a decent chance too. Reviews from college professors who’ve used used a text for teaching, and cite students’ responses to it, can also be very informative.

Be alert for changes between editions 

Buyers of the older, cheaper editions also need to be alert for changes between editions. Sometimes these are minimal, but perhaps the old edition was riddled with errors, was substantially rewritten to improve clarity, made more stringent assumptions about the reader’s background knowledge, or omitted subjects considered essential in newer editions. In the quest for a perfect  – or at least passable – text for self-study, these are all pitfalls I’ve come across: reading reviews for the older edition you plan to buy is the only way to avoid them. And it is important to avoid them; worst case they can render an older edition… less than useful. (Hint: Where a second hand vendor fails to list the edition Googling the book’s ISBN is often the easiest way to find out.)

“Occupy Textbooks”: the Open Textbook Movement

The precipitous rise in textbook prices has not been ignored by the more altruistic sections of academia, and over the last decade or so an Open Textbook Movement has sprung up. Prof Allen Downey’s “Think” series may include the earliest examples. It starting with introductory Computer Science texts using Java and Python, and has grown to cover an eclectic range of related topics.

Thanks to its open source nature, the first installment of the “Think” has also been adapted into an ‘active book’ with embedded interpreters, at Runestone Interactive. And that site too has grown to offer several more CS-related titles.

For budding statisticians OpenIntro  offers a range of introductory applied statistics texts, while ProbabilityCourse is a text in the mathematical statistics genre.

These resources listed are focused on a fairly narrow subject area, and aside from being free in online form, offer inexpensive (often sub $10) paper versions and some cases multimedia support. While their originators dub them “Open Textbooks”, they’re not so different from “Open Courseware” – which is what we’ll cover next. But many more open textbooks (and/or copyrighted textbooks legally available for free) for a broad range of subjects are only a google away – though most lack this level of supporting material, and the quality does vary.