I almost forgot to mention another set of conversations I had at the Joint Math Meetings, about open textbooks. Textbook prices are a real factor in the affordability of college; since in college I paid for textbooks through money I earned waiting tables I certainly paid attention to options cheaper than buying new. I still try to pay attention to textbook prices when I teach, and to balance them with quality. At St. Olaf College I asked my differential equations students to buy a >$200 textbook because I thought it was the best out there for the course I’d teach (Blanchard, Devaney, Hall if you’re interested), but I did not do so lightly.
Anyhow, at the Joint Meetings I was reminded of the American Institute of Mathematics’s (AIM) open textbooks initiative. They have links to many open textbooks. In my brief conversation with Jim Hefferon, author of Linear Algebra, he reminded me that we are all invited to contribute to the open textbook initiative by sharing exams from our courses, homework problems, and other teaching resources that might make it easier to teach from an open textbook.
It is now possible to share these textbooks almost for free, because of the internet and information technology. We are slowly starting to adopt electronic textbooks, and it’s a big market: Apple is in on the game, with iBooks textbooks, and Google has been renting electronic textbooks for a little while. I honestly haven’t seen any truly transformative electronic textbook experiences yet, instead simply seeing the same material on a screen with the ability to rotate a picture. Electronic textbooks are also lighter. There is some potential in what’s coming out of another AIM-supported effort, UTMOST, integrating SAGE and open textbooks. One of my dreams is to create a beautiful math text with interactive mathematical experiments and modeling, so if you see anything like that, comment or send me an email!
When I think about participating in such an effort, though, it comes back to economics. I am not a tenured professor. I’m an early-career mathematician in a non-tenure-track position. I do not see the benefit in creating content for a big publisher that will give me essentially no royalties. I see the idealistic benefit of contributing to open textbooks initiatives even in the absence of royalties, but I also need to prioritize activities that will lead to a remunerative job at some point. In software, people contribute to open software as a hobby or supported by a paying job. In mathematics, the number of jobs with decent pay for early-career people is somewhat restricted and many are temporary, and so much “free” work is required in order to get the tenured position that another “free” effort just doesn’t seem like a good idea. There is a lot of conversation about the public face of mathematics but I don’t see it honestly addressing the economics of supporting these contributions.
Also check out MIT’s Open Courseware textbooks page.