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2012 September 2

Wikipedia books, another approach for a free/cheap textbook

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 14:06
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I’ve been thinking about another approach to providing a low-cost textbook for the circuits class: bundling a number of Wikipedia articles into a Wikipedia book, like the Introduction to Electronics one.  The idea is an appealing one, as many of the Wikipedia articles are excellent (better written than many textbooks), we can customize what topics to include, small errors in the text can be corrected, and students can either access the “book” online, download it in in PDF, ZIM, or OpenDocument format, or even pay for a printed copy.  The downloaded or printed copies will be frozen, while the live Wikipedia book gets updated every time one of the contained articles is edited.  We could provide frozen copies on the course web site, as a precaution against major rewrites removing information we expect students to read.

The Introduction to Electronics Wikipedia book does not have exactly the subjects we would need for our course, but several of the articles there are appropriate.  One attraction of this approach is that we can tailor our book to have exactly the content we need (assuming the articles we need exist) in the order we want. We can design our course by listing the topics we need in the order we need, and automatically have a text that matches. Given the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of our course (from basic circuits to EKG design, with side trips into electrodes and possibly fluidics modeling), we’re going to have to cobble together multiple sources anyway, so a Wikipedia book may be a good way to create the main text.  No matter what text we use, we’ll have to supplement with manufacturers’ data sheets, which can’t be included in a Wikipedia book because of copyright restrictions.

One disadvantage of Wikipedia books is that the articles in Wikipedia are by different authors and have no implicit ordering, so concepts cannot be developed in a gradual manner.  Individual articles are written at very different levels of sophistication, and some articles will have only a few sections that are relevant to the course.  The book would not be as smooth as a well-written textbook, but better than many of the poorly written ones on the market. I believe that we can add some manually created text (part of the book, but not part of Wikipedia) to introduce chapters, but I’m not exactly sure how (probably it involves including pages that are part of Wikipedia user space rather than public space).

Note: Wikipedia books are different from WikiBooks, which are from a project to create crowd-sourced free textbooks.  The electronics books currently available from WikiBooks are very incomplete and not as well written as Wikipedia articles, so I don’t think that they will be useful this year.

I started playing a bit with Wikipedia’s “Book Creator” and found it to be a very awkward interface.  Clicking on pages to add them to the book being created worked ok, but dragging the pages around to reorder them did not and the claimed button for adding chapters never appeared.  Furthermore, once you save a draft book, the book creator assumes you want to start a new one, so clicking on pages can’t add to an existing draft.  It seems that the book creator is damn near useless after the first 5 minutes, and after that you just have to edit the book like any other Wikipedia page.

2012 August 31

All about circuits, a possible supplemental text

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:54
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I’ve been dipping into All about circuits, a free electronic textbook written (mostly) by Tony R. Kuphaldt, as a possible textbook for the circuits class.  I like that it is free, as that makes it much more likely that students will have ready access to it (many decide not to buy expensive texts, and end up trying to borrow them from friends).

The format, as 100s of HTML files, is a bit awkward to read, but fairly easy to search with Google (by adding “site:allaboutcircuits.com” to the keywords ins the search box), so indexing is not really an issue.  The book starts at about a middle-school level, but gets up to the beginnings of circuit theory (Thevenin’s TheoremRC and L/R time constants, Reactance and impedance—R, L, and C, …).  The Operational amplifier chapter looks usable, though it does not have a design focus—circuits are presented as almost magical rather than carefully analyzed from first principles (as is done in more theoretical circuits books) or from design rules of thumb (as is done in books like Horowitz and Hill).

I think that All about Circuits can be a good supplemental text for students who need something at a lower reading and math level than Horowitz and Hill, for review of physics electricity and magnetism concepts, and to fill in gaps in prior education (such as complex numbers).

I don’t know that I want to use Horowitz and Hill as the main text, though, as it is pretty expensive for such an old electronics book. I wonder if there is another free book that is somewhat higher level than All about Circuits that can be combined with it to make a textbook at the right level for the range of students expected in the class.

I think we may need a more mathematical presentation of some of the material, if the students are to be able to continue into later electronics classes. This may not matter, because the chair of the EE department has made it pretty clear that no subsequent electronics course would use this course as a prerequisite, and that students would have to take the “real” circuits course in order to take any further electronics courses.  Of course, if he holds to that for the bioelectronics class, then he’ll have almost no students in that class, since few if any of the bioengineers will subject themselves to the dry, repetitive linear algebra manipulations of the standard circuits class in order to take a bioelectronics class that doesn’t even include a lab component.  If we get to teach our applied circuits course, we should be able to convince the professor creating the bioelectronics course to accept it as a prereq in place of the standard circuits course.

2012 August 13

More free textbooks

Filed under: Circuits course — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 23:20
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There are quite a few textbooks available for free on the internet. I’ve posted on this before: Free calculus book, Free open-source college books, Free textbooks, Free ebook for learning Python, Free textbooks (I seem to have used that title twice!).

Here are two math textbooks I’ve heard about recently:

There are about 500 more free math books listed by e-booksdirectory, including about 20 linear algebra texts and 20 calculus texts (the list is sorted by subcategory also).

On the free math book page, they also provide pointers to

Somewhat surprisingly, they put a link to programming, but not computer science, which I would have thought was closer to math.  On their home page, they list about 22 major categories and more minor categories than I cared to count (they say 6983 free e-books in 600 categories).

I’ll want to look through the Free electronics books for the circuits course, to see if there is anything there we can use as a text.  I’ve not been too excited by the expensive hard-copy texts I’ve found, but some of the free op-amp books look like they may be worth recommending as supplementary material at least.

It is nice that e-books directory is collecting pointers to the free resources, with statements by the author/publisher, but it would be even nicer if expert reviewers started doing comparative reviews of the online books and standard books on the same topics.

The quality of free books undoubtedly varies highly, though many have not had the careful attention of copy editors and book designers.

Some are abandoned by publishers because the market is too small and they have more recent books on which they can make more money. Some are vanity publications by authors who can’t find publishers.  Some are early drafts being released for feedback before attempting to find a publisher.  Some are very specialized and have too small a market to be worth the effort of commercial publication by either the authors or publishers.  Some are being released altruistically by authors or publishers who believe in an open sharing of ideas and resources.

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