Open Textbooks

At Mathfest, I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Beezer and having some extended conversation with him.  Rob is a longtime proponent of free and open textbooks, as well as the author of one himself.  After my talk he said “You’re where I was 5-6 years ago.  We should talk.”  After sitting and listening and peppering him with questions for an hour, I’m immensely grateful to have someone in the same field with rich experience to turn to for counsel.

Rob works at the University of Puget Sound and is a leader in the free and open textbook movement.  He first shared a version of his linear algebra text in 2004.  About a year ago, he reached 750,000 page views for his website.  His story is a fantastic one.  And now he’s doing amazing work in terms of the digital delivery of his text; he told me that while he long used .pdf as his main delivery format, his big project of late has been to convert the entire project to html so that his primary output target can be “a web version, enabled by MathJax, knowls and XML source.”  The result is impressive, and the use of “knowls” is especially cool, as these provide a way for text to expand and retract seamlessly with the simple click of a mouse.

(When I look at Rob’s work, I think: what have I gotten myself into?  Clearly a lot of learning and hard work ahead … with much to aspire to.)

Beyond this one great example, everyone should know that the American Institute of Mathematics has a growing open textbook project.  One of the goals for the book I’m working on is eventually to get it endorsed by AIM.  At AIM’s open textbook site, you can find links to some of AIM’s approved texts, including Rob’s linear algebra text.  There are also two for calculus.  One is a long out-of-print text by Gilbert Strang of MIT, as well as a more modern one by David Guichard at Whitman College.  Strang’s text is free in .pdf format, but the source is not open.  Guichard’s .pdf is free, and the source is open.  Neither of these books suits my own personal tastes, particularly for engaging students actively in class, but both are great contributions to the diverse options out there for the teaching and learning of calculus.  And again:  both are free.

Strang’s text has long been posted online as one of the early contributions to the MIT Open Courseware Project.  My understanding is that MIT was one of the very first elite universities to make such resources available for free, which in some cases include video lectures.  For instance, you can watch Strang’s lectures from teaching linear algebra.  This is a spectacular free resource, not unlike the idea of Coursera and a previous post I wrote about Robert Ghrist’s upcoming calculus class.

All of these contributions are working to remove “access” as the limiting resource, and to bring the opportunity to learn deep, interesting, and important mathematics to anyone who has the time and the talent for it.


  1. I talked with Rob briefly this summer, too. He asked me if I had seen “The Graduate”. He gave me advice, “xml” in place of “plastics”.

    It looks cool, but the learning curve is daunting.

  2. […] how and how well we use these resources to impact our students’ learning.  In light of the exciting developments in free and open texts, as well as the ease of self-publishing, I’m inclined to think that the $100 expense is not […]

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