The Future of Textbook Selection: An Interview with Jon Preston


Jon Preston is Interim Chair of the Department of Information Technology at Clayton College and State University, in the University System of Georgia.

Jon Preston
Jon Preston,
SafariU member
His department began offering the BIT degree seven years ago, and Jon teaches the advanced course on testing and quality assurance for the degree program. He modeled the course on a software engineering practicum he was involved in at Georgia Tech.

For years, Jon's been unable to find an appropriate course textbook. Instead, he would prepare PowerPoint slides and present new material in lectures, posting the slides online afterward for the students' reference. Jon supplemented with guest speakers and the occasional recommended text that he felt offered pertinent reading material, but he was never comfortable requiring students to purchase a particular book. Until SafariU came along, no text covered the material sufficiently for Jon to adopt it with confidence.

"When the call came for the SafariU beta program, I was very excited to participate. In fact, I jumped at the chance and started using it immediately."

O'Reilly: It sounds as though you were ready for a service like SafariU.

Jon Preston: Absolutely. We have adopted a couple of O'Reilly books for use in some of our other courses, and they're great—-very in-depth. This particular course needed kind of a smattering of different things that O'Reilly offers, but I couldn't see asking the students to spend three or four hundred dollars on six different books. When this new service came online, I was very happy to discover that I could pick and choose a couple of chapters from six or seven different books and put together something that was custom-tailored, that was made-to-order for the course I was teaching.

OR: And is this the first time that you considered using such a process?

JP: There might be other ways of doing what I needed to do, but I wasn't aware of them. When the call came for the SafariU beta program, I was very excited to participate. In fact, I jumped at the chance and started using it immediately.

OR: Would you say you and your students had a pretty good familiarity with O'Reilly prior to using SafariU?

JP: Five years ago, when I came to the department, we established an IT library. It's a collection of several hundred books we keep within the department for students to use as reference. We've stocked it with just about everything O'Reilly has published. They're great books, and we've definitely been familiar with them for awhile.

OR: Describe your process. Did you create a textbook or an online syllabus?

JP: I created a book, because I think students appreciate having something tangible that they can bring to class, a text they can mark up and keep. You could post it online, certainly, but I appreciate that the students can buy the physical book and use that even after they complete the course. That's a real asset. Former students have come to me and said, "You know, I really didn't get what you were trying to do that semester, but two years later, when I was at my first job, I really appreciated having that expertise, and being able to return to my notes." I wanted something they could take with them and keep over the long term. So I created the book.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Professor Preston's SafariU book cover

First, I spent some time getting familiar with the SafariU system. It was pretty easy to navigate. The only problem I had was sorting through all the available resources. It's kind of daunting at first when your search comes back with two hundred hits and you don't know where to begin. You've got to cull through that and figure out which titles offer exactly what you want and which ones kind of repeat what you've already got. That took some time, just getting acquainted with the system. After about an hour or so, I was pretty comfortable with the interface and felt like I knew how to find what I was looking for.

"SafariU lets us select and use the course content that we want. Publishers need to be able to compete in this internet-driven world, and if I can take bits and pieces of their books and put together my own, that keeps them competitive."

OR: Any feature of the user interface that stood out?

JP: It gave me the ability to create subsections and to group chapters together—that was really nice. I've got four or five major themes in the course, so I pulled together three or four resources for each of these themes and then compartmentalized them in the book using divider pages. The auto-indexing was a great feature as well. Having an index automatically generated and knowing the students will be able to find the topics they're looking for is a real plus.

OR: You said that getting some two hundred initial search results was a bit daunting. Were the resources available through SafariU sufficient for your needs?

JP: I think so. I would find a chapter or section that looked promising, then click through to see the outline of the book it came from, and often I'd find that the chapter right before or right after was exactly what I was looking for. You just need to spend some time with it. You can definitely find what you're looking for.

OR: How long was your textbook?

JP: It's about 150 pages. I like knowing how much it's going to cost my students as I go along—how much more it will be if I add another resource. We try to be responsible. The rising cost of textbooks is on people's minds these days. So it's nice to know that if I'm going to add another chapter, it's going to increase the cost by X amount. Then I can ask myself if something's really essential to the book, or if it could be covered in a lecture instead.

OR: How long did it take you to create your book?

JP: I'm pretty technically savvy, so I put the entire thing together in about three to four hours.

OR: Wow! That's fast.

JP: I've talked to the other people using SafariU, and they were surprised I did it that quickly. But, again, I've been teaching the course for eight years, and I knew exactly what I was looking for, so that certainly helped. I'd imagine it would take a little bit longer for a first-time course, or if the instructor was trying to define what the course should be about while creating the book.

"All the SafariU content has one common look and feel. I can browse all the resources without having to acclimate to a bunch of different websites."

OR: If you had been forced to find your material over the internet or cull it from other resources, it probably would have taken longer.

JP: Yes. For example, one of the things that we talk about in this course is configuration management, and one of its enabling technologies is Microsoft's Visual Source Saver. I've used white papers from Microsoft in the past, and they're fine—I don't have a problem with them—but being able to pull everything together and bundle it from one source is incredibly helpful. I didn't have to go through someone else's huge knowledge base, or navigate the internet to find these things. All the SafariU content has one common look and feel. I can browse all the resources without having to acclimate to a bunch of different websites.

OR: Did you upload any of your own material?

JP: Not in this book, but I've since put together another one, and I'm going to use a couple of my own things in there.

OR: You've already used SafariU to make a second book?

JP: Yes. We'll start using it in June, for a summer course. This is another situation where we looked at a lot of different books—over a dozen. The course is an introduction to programming in C#, a newer language, so there aren't a whole lot of books out there to choose from. We were able to pull from the good resource material that O'Reilly offers, mix in some fundamental programming content and put together a book of about 300 pages that will work for both the introductory and intermediate C# courses.

OR: Do you think you'll have students use the online syllabus in the future?

JP: We're making that transition. Each of our courses has a website where we post material—schedules and syllabi and so forth. I need to spend a little more time looking into the online options available to us with SafariU. We are a laptop university, so it would certainly make sense to use the online syllabus. However, given that, under the subscription model, the student has the resource only while they're enrolled in the course, it seems economically better for the student to buy a printed book they can keep forever.

"Our department philosophy has been that the instructor defines what a course should be and then goes out to find an appropriate textbook, not the other way around."

OR: In whatever form the material is presented, the critical thing seems to be that you, the instructor, are able to set the curriculum instead of being dictated to by a textbook.

JP: Exactly. Our department philosophy has been that the instructor defines what a course should be and then goes out to find an appropriate textbook, not the other way around. That way we have control over exactly what we want to be teaching. The downside has been that we might adopt a book and only use half of it in the class. Our students resent paying eighty, ninety, or a hundred dollars for a book and only using part of it. With SafariU, we're able to perfectly match the subject matter we want to teach with the books that we create—and that the students buy—for the class.

OR: In gathering and assembling your course material in the past, have you ever come up against any sort of licensing issues?

JP: I stuck with white papers and technical reports that are part of the public domain, not wanting to have to deal with getting copyright permissions and all that. Now, with SafariU, that's all managed for me. I don't have to use my time negotiating the fees I'd have to pay to put together a book. That's not where my skills lie. My skill is on the teaching side, so negotiating copyright law is not where I want to be spending my time. I appreciate that O'Reilly's taken care of all that.

OR: You've been using the book you made for a few months now with your students. Any way to quantify what the benefits have been? We've talked about the time savings in putting the material together, and the cost. Are there other things that come to mind?

JP: Historically, I would give a lecture, then I'd give a quiz before the next lecture to see if the students got what I wanted them to get out of the first lecture. If they were not able to attend a lecture, they were just out of luck. They simply didn't get the material. Now that I've made a textbook for them, I've taken a different approach. I have them write a one-paragraph synopsis of the assigned reading that they submit at the beginning of class, just so I know they're keeping up. The following class, I give them a quiz to assess whether they really understand, in depth, what was presented in the reading and the lecture. One of the major advantages of having the book now is that I can have them prepare for class. Before, they were just coming in blind. Our in-class time is much more productive now. We can discuss the reading, rather than my presenting the concepts to them for the first time. We have much better, more in-depth, conversation-driven class sessions, rather than me simply dictating the knowledge that I want them to receive. It's much more interactive.

"I really see this as a revival opportunity."

OR: So using SafariU really has changed the way that you operate in the classroom.

JP: It's true. If you think back to your college days, the worst thing was just sitting there being lectured to. I want to have conversations with my students. I want to be able to ask: What's the message here? What's your critique of that? What's right? What's wrong? What do you bring to this discussion? If that's how things go in the classroom, they'll have a deeper understanding of the material and get more out of the course as a whole.

OR: Certainly. Any parting thoughts on SafariU?

JP: SafariU lets us select and use the course content that we want. Publishers need to be able to compete in this internet-driven world, and if I can take bits and pieces of their books and put together my own, that's fantastic. That keeps them competitive. I've used SafariU in beta and I'm looking forward to the next version, so I can pick from a larger library. It's limited right now, but a lot of other resources are going into the database when the system goes fully online. I'm looking forward to that. I show off the books that we've put together to other colleagues, and we've got a few more faculty writing their own now. I really see this as a revival opportunity—the future of textbook selection. The days of looking through a dozen books and picking something that almost suits your course are nearing an end. Now you can have exactly what you need.

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