Math Class Uses Free, Online Textbook

As a math professor, Joe Fields knows a thing or two about how costs can compound themselves. He can use algebraic formulas – even calculus equations – to show just how much rising costs of higher education are affecting the pocketbooks of students and their parents.

But he didn't need an advanced mathematical background to discover the effect that rising textbook prices are having on students across the country, including those he teaches at Southern.

That awareness helped spur Fields to write an open-source textbook for a course he teaches on mathematical proofs. He makes the book available online for free to his students, or for that matter to any students, professors or others who wish to read it or print it out. "It just seemed ridiculous to me that a standard textbook for this class was costing students around $150. So, I decided to write a book (A Gentle Introduction to the Art of Mathematics) that is not only free, but that I believe is better at helping students in their transition from computational math courses to the more abstract and theoretical courses."

And don't worry, the quality is sound. In fact, his book has been endorsed by the American Institute of Mathematics – a prestigious organization in the math world. The book was originally published in 2008, but has had several revisions. A printed-on-demand, hard copy of the book is also available for $14.40, but in the digital age, many students are quite comfortable with reading online publications.

The approach taken by Fields – offering free online textbooks – is a growing phenomenon in academia. At SCSU, several of his Math Department colleagues are following a similar path. Len Brin, assistant department chairman, has begun writing a book, "Numerical Analysis." And Marie Nabbout-Cheiban, assistant professor, and Klay Kruczek, associate professor, are also involved in online software projects.

"You often see textbook publishers come out with revised editions after making only minor changes that really didn't need to made," Fields said. "But they sometimes change the numeric sequence of the math problems in the book so that students are forced to buy the new edition, rather than purchase a cheaper, used book."

Fields said it is easier in some ways to develop and market such free online textbooks for more advanced courses because there is less interest from publishing companies. The introductory or more basic level courses are used by more students and the publishers do a good job of providing supplemental materials, he said.

He typically teaches his Introduction to Proofs course to about 40 students a year. That saves students – who in past years had been paying about $150 for a textbook – a collective total of $6,000 a year. He does not know how many others have used his textbook so far, but he has received a few emails – presumably from faculty members or students at other schools -- asking questions about it.

Suzy Mitchell, an SCSU student who used the open-source book by Fields for another math class, said she was pleasantly surprised by her experience. "I thought I was going to hate an online textbook, especially a math one," Mitchell said. "However, it was a very easy resource and as a student, it was very convenient and easy to access. And the fact that the author of the book was one of my former professors was a great comfort. If I was confused about something or questioned an idea, I could (ask) Dr. Fields about it and he would be more than willing to help answer any of my questions."

Fields said he believes the use of open-source textbook will continue to grow.

"I think we are going to see increased interest and use of online books in higher education as a way to help curtail costs for students," Fields said.

A recent report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office shows an 82- percent increase in the average price of college textbooks since 2002 -- virtually triple the rate of inflation during that same period.