The Future of Math Textbooks – Lower Division Variety


Our department is looking at some open-source textbooks for our  statistics and precalculus classes.  This process elicited the following thoughts expressed in list form.

Facts on the Ground.

  1. Modern textbooks from mainline publishers are very expensive, $200 and more.
  2. Many students do not buy the textbook, even a used copy. They find a bootlegged copy online or try to get by with a library copy or without one.
  3. Reading a textbook is often a last resort. If a student wants to know about some algorithm, they check their notes and then turn to google.
  4. Explicit reading assignments with consequences – quizzes over the material or journal entries – are not commonly made by math instructors.
  5. Math textbooks are often chosen by instructors for their problems – number, difficulty and variety.
  6. Math textbooks are often chosen for their ancillaries – online homework systems, test banks, detailed instructor outlines, etc.
  7. Math textbooks have many pages of explanations for many varieties of problems. This is a result of trying to be all things to all people (instructors).
  8. Lower level math textbooks have not materially changed in fifty or more years. They cover the same material in substantially the same way.  Instructors learned the material that way and are comfortable teaching it in the same way.

What Instructors Get from a Commercial Textbook

  1. A carefully written and edited reference for students and themselves.
  2. Carefully sequenced explanations.
  3. A source of professional quality diagrams.
  4. A source of problems with answers – answers to odd problems for the students, all answers for the instructor.
  5. Extra help for their students.
  6. An outline for the material to be covered.
  7. A pace – one section per day though not always.

What Students Get from a Commercial Textbook

  1. See what instructors get.
  2. Several pounds of paper to lug around in a sagging backpack.
  3. A $200 expense partially recovered by selling the text back to the bookstore.


Marketplace forces have constructed a system of textbooks with lots of bells and whistles which students can’t afford.   The upshot is that students avoid math classes, use bootleg copies and answer keys, and select instructors based on the cost of the textbook.  State legislatures are considering incentives to encourage cheaper texts. In response math departments are looking at open-source textbooks.

The future:

The math textbook will become obsolete going the way of the LP and CD in the music industry.  Smartphone apps for writing math are developing. YouTube is teeming with math videos.  Free complete math courses can be found online. Professors are posting their notes with extensive hyperlinks. People are building mathematical images, graphing tools, and math concept demonstrators.  Math instructors will become curators picking and choosing from the myriad of internet math artifacts.  Master curators will develop – the DJ’s of the math world.


About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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