Taking the plunge with a new book format and a new homework system for Physics 132

This semester, I have decided to finally take the plunge for migrating the Physics 132 textbook from the pdf generated by the OpenStax CNX platform to a much-easier-to-edit format of Pressbooks and simultaneously moving the online preparatory homework from Pearson’s MasteringPhysics (to which I will not link, search for it if you are interested) to Edfinity. This is quite a journey and a lot of work, but I think it will pay off.

The new book can be seen at http://openbooks.library.umass.edu/toggerson-132/. It is being built as we go for the current semester, but have a look!


There were several factors to motivate this switch:

  1. OpenStax’s native CNX editing platform is difficult to use and time-consuming to build into a pdf usable by the class.
  2. The price of $35/student per semester for Pearson’s MasteringPhysics is, I believe too high for what you get. Also, there is constant pressure for that price to rise further.
  3. Sharing problems I create with the broader community is not a philosophy built into the design of MasteringPhysics; that particular platform is very closed.
  4. A reduction in the number of software platforms with which students must interact. In the past Physics 132 students used: Moodle for classroom materials, Echo360 to view recordings of the lectures, and Piazza for discussion forums. Moreover for preparation, the book was read in the Perusall system, while the homework problems were in MasteringPhysics. That is too many platforms for a student to easily navigate!

During this past semester, all of these issues finally came to a head, and provided sufficient motivation to migrate the entire book. Due to my work with the Integrated Introductory Life Science Education group at UMass-Amherst, I wanted to make several changes to the text – enough changes that the extra work to migrate everything was not much more than making the changes in CNX.

Pressbooks vs. OpenStax CNX

While I am deeply indebted to the work that OpenStax has done, their native CNX platform, which we have been using to build custom textbooks up to this point, suffers from a myriad of problems. The system uses a custom XML language, which adds an unnecessary hurdle for bringing on new students to help with the book. Moreover, the XML language is not used by other, more common, applications. Therefore, the times that students spend learning it does not help them in their future endeavors. Moreover, the CNX platform does not allow for the Unit → Chapter → Section structure that our book requires, and does not make it easy to edit the CSS style sheet to change this property. The only way I have made pdfs in the past with our Unit → Chapter → Section structure is by compiling each Unit separately and then stitching them together in Adobe Acrobat: clearly a hack process. Moreover, the hosting website is slow to load and use, the system lacks version control, and conversion from XML to pdf is very time consuming, taking up to 24hrs.

In contrast, Pressbooks is fundamentally WordPress. WordPress is not only easier for new students to learn, but is also a skill that will be likely to be beneficial to them in future careers. Moreover, versioning is natively built in to the structure. In addition, there is more control and WordPress add-ons can be used. Most importantly, the edit-cycle time is effectively instantaneous: log in, edit, publish. I am therefore able to fix issues or errors in the book in real time as students find them. A huge benefit.

Why moving to Pressbooks and Edfinity reduces the number of platforms

Students are reluctant to read the textbook. In the past, I have used the Perusall system to help ensure that students at least open the book. This platform is a collaborative reading tool which allows students to annotate the text and respond to each others’ questions and comments. These comments can then be graded, either by the instructor or by the built-in AI. This platform is particularly beneficial for advanced courses which rely on the scientific literature for their materials such as Physics 361 and Physics 691G. However, the relatively elementary level material for Physics 131 and 132 meant that, particularly stronger students, felt the platform was “busy work.” While this has been an issue for several years, I have continued to use Perusall in these introductory courses as I knew of no other way to ensure that each student opened the book and engaged with it as part of their preparation (key for the flipped model of these courses).

Pressbooks and Edfinity in combination, however, allow for a new solution. Links to Edfinity assignments can be embedded directly within Pressbooks. Thus, students know exactly where the material needed to complete each problem is located. In the near future (months), we believe that we will be able to embed the homework problems directly into the text further integrating the homework and text.