I’ve had need to brush up on my algorithmic knowledge recently. So there’s been a certain amount of getting books out of the library, googling for bits of information and spending some time working though ebooks on things like Kindles/iPads.
What’s mildly upsetting is that, for educational value, Wikipedia and YouTube are well out in front of the pack for most of the material.
It’s not upsetting because I cling to the old ways: you would have to look pretty far and wide to find someone as enthusiastic about open data and the power of collaboration as I. It’s upsetting because even as people begin to write and publish for the web only, they refuse to make use of the technology available to them.
Let me give you a concrete example. Quicksort is a lovely little algorithm (don’t panic – I won’t go into the details – but I will point out that I met the man that invented it this year). It’s something that every Computer Science undergraduate in the world has to learn and it’s generally incomprehensible until you’ve seen it working a couple of times. Computer Science textbooks do their very best to explain it and generally don’t get very far, because you really do have to see it working.
Wikipedia on the other hand, has this at the top of the page.
It’s beautiful, it’s obvious, and even the most confused Computer Science student clicks fairly immediately. They can see why it works, they can see why it’s fast, and with a couple of pages of notes, they are all over it.
Why aren’t eBooks on your iPad, full of this sort of illustration? (for irony points Big Java includes instructions and exercises for students so that they can write such a demo, but doesn’t get it’s hands dirty).
There are sensible reasons of course: the first one being that the ebook formats don’t support it. To which the reply is “they should”. This is an animated GIF, it’s not rocket science. The question that appears next is, of course: “Wait, why do we have ebook formats at all? Why aren’t ebook readers just using HTML?” (again, for irony points, not only can my Kindle read webpages, I also upload books to Kindle’s publishing system by converting them to HTML first!).
The second argument against this is that “it’s a lot of effort for *only* the online version”, which is rather like saying “People don’t seem to want to pay us for this thing we’re doing badly, so why should we do it better?”.
Computer Science may be the first example for this sort of thing, but it’s not the only one: it’s hard to think of a science (or even a history) field that does not have issues that are better illustrated dynamically. Here’s one of my favorites for illustrating how to draw a particular character:
How much more effort would it have required to do this entirely statically?
I should say that in no way to I think that this should be done without proper care: accessibility issues are of particular interest to me, and every illustration should be properly backed up with the relevant descriptive text, but I do think that if we are going to use illustrations we should do so properly. More to the point, I think that until the writers and publishers of textbooks stop thinking of electronic versions as ‘just a PDF’, they are going to find themselves seriously intellectually outgunned by the army of Wikipedia volunteers, who are producing higher quality material than professional publishers.
Animations make things easier to understand, not everything, but many things, and without having them in PDF’s and ebooks, we are basically reading fake paper on a platform that could be so much more.
I’ll leave you with a couple more of my favorites:
For medical people, here’s a nice shot of a particular part of the brain:
For engineering people, here’s a webcam undergoing a CT scan:
and for people who, like me, didn’t realise the Trapezius was quite so big: