The Dynamic Buffet vs. the Tired Hodge-Podge:
Creating a Textbook My Way
An Interview with Charles Anderson

Charles Anderson
Charles Anderson,
SafariU member

Charles Anderson is an assistant professor in the Division of Computer Science at Western Oregon University, teaching mostly networking and operating system courses. He admits to having very particular ideas about what materials should be covered in a given class and how those should be presented, and he has had difficulty finding textbooks that address what he wants to teach. Before he started using SafariU, he'd pick an existing text that did a fair job ("the lesser of the evils," as he put it) and would supplement that pretty heavily with articles and excerpts of other books. But he was beginning to run into problems with copyrights and the limitations of fair use. As well, he felt his students were getting shortchanged in the process.

O'Reilly: Given your dissatisfaction, it seems logical that you'd choose to try SafariU.

Charles Anderson: Oh yeah! I've been chomping at the bit for this. You guys first teased us a year ago, saying that SafariU was possibly going to be available by this time last year. I've been dying to try it out.

OR: Did you create an actual bound book or an online syllabus?

CA: I did a book first, and then I created a syllabus from the book. I looked at the class enrollment numbers and estimated how many books to order. And then, on the first day of class, I could see that more students had registered than I had ordered books for. So I also made the electronic syllabus available to the students, initially for those who might not be able to buy a paper book.

OR: Because of cost?

CA: No, just because I ordered a certain number of books, and then it looked like we were going to have more students than books. It's especially difficult to gauge spring quarter enrollments ahead of time. There's a very small window of time between student registration and the start of the quarter.

So I ended up doing the electronic syllabus just in case we sold out of hard copies. Although now, I believe some students are availing themselves of the electronic version because it costs less than the book. Not because the book costs too much to print, but because our bookstore marks up the price a lot. I think that pissed off some of my students, but that's an issue beyond your control.

"The worst rush job at SafariU was going to be far better than the hodge-podge technique I usually use."

OR: Let's talk about your use of SafariU. Can you describe the process on your end?

CA: As I said, I was dying to try it out, even before it was available in beta. When I had spare time here and there, I kind of cruised through the O'Reilly catalog to find books that I might want to pull content from. And then, when the beta program officially opened up, I went in and grabbed all those titles. I chose sections of the books I was interested in and then searched for other books that I might want to include.

OR: Did you find the resources met your needs?

CA: There were a couple subject areas where I didn't find the material I'd hoped to, but it's not clear to me that the material wasn't there. It may have just been that I was under time constraints, and given a little more opportunity to search, I might've been able to find what I was looking for.

OR: Those time constraints being that you only had one week between the winter and spring quarters?

CA: It wasn't that so much as trying to fit it in while I was teaching. I was putting the book together during winter quarter. Western Oregon is a teaching university rather than a research school, so I teach three or four classes a quarter, which means I'm really busy when classes are in session. I would've loved it if SafariU had been available in beta a year ago, so I could've done my book assembly during summer, when I'm less busy.

So just because of my own personal scheduling, I was pretty rushed putting together this first book. It's like a student doing a term paper. You run out of time and you tell yourself, I know this isn't the best thing I could've done, but it's an honest effort. For me, in the end, no matter what I created with SafariU, I knew it would be better than what I'd have done without it. The worst rush job at SafariU was going to be far better than the hodge-podge technique I usually use.

"I found things that I ended up using in places where I wouldn't have known to look on my own."

OR: What was your experience with the user interface and the creation process? Any particular features that stood out?

CA: I know this is the beta version and I'll give you guys the benefit of the doubt, but I have to say the user interface needs work. I ended up having two, three, or four windows open simultaneously. With the actual book assembly tool, I got the feeling that sometimes I was trying to do the wrong thing in the wrong mode. Just the other night, I went to the site to see what the electronic syllabus looked like from my students' perspective. And frankly, I never got there. I felt like I was getting kind of hamstrung by the interface at times.

(Thanks to extensive beta user feedback, O'Reilly is planning significant enhancements to the SafariU user interface for future releases.)

But like I said, I still think even the worst thing I could put together with SafariU is head and shoulders above anything I've done previously. So even though I'm beating up on you about the beta version of the user interface, I'm still a satisfied customer.

OR: That's a good thing. Can you talk a bit more about how you ultimately chose your content for the book and the online syllabus? Did you upload any of your own material?

CA: I didn't upload my own material, again because of time issues. If I'd had time to work on the book over the summer, I would've loved to have developed some of my own content. At the very least, I'd really like to include some review questions and things like that at the end of each chapter.

In terms of selecting the available content, a lot of it was based on the O'Reilly books that I either already had or knew I wanted to include. That pre-selection process got me sixty to seventy percent of the way. That was basically material I knew off the top of my head that I wanted to use, and could grab quickly. For the rest of it, I did keyword and topical searches. That was a little frustrating as well in terms of interface, because when I'd do a search, a bunch of stuff outside of O'Reilly would show up in the search criteria, even though I didn't have access to that material for the book. It felt a little bit like I was being taunted. But the nice thing about the keyword searches was that, for a couple of topics, I found things that I ended up using in places where I wouldn't have known to look on my own. That was pretty cool.

"SafariU is a very dynamic tool."

OR: How long did it take you to create the book?

CA: I had one big session where I picked the low-hanging fruit--that first seventy percent that I already knew I wanted to use. There were a couple more sessions here and there, where I would search around one or two topics. And then there was a session at the end for the final edit--the assembly process. It didn't seem like a whole lot of time.

Anderson's Book Cover
Figure 1. Charles Anderson's SafariU book cover

OR: Did it seem like a reasonable amount of time for what you needed to accomplish? You mentioned some of the difficulties you had with the interface.

CA: You know, without harping on that, I would say problems with the interface undermined my effectiveness, adding to the length of time it took. But it wasn't like I spent five hours and got nothing.

OR: So you'd use the service again?

CA: Certainly.

"I can use all of this diverse content and I don't have to worry about copyright and fair use. I also don't have to worry about it becoming obsolete."

OR: Can you say what benefit you think students will derive from using either the textbook or the online syllabus?

CA: I think it will benefit them to have one source of information--a primary resource for the class. I'm putting together lectures that match that material, whereas in the past I would use the lectures to present the material for the first time. Now I can plan my presentations around material they already have some familiarity with from the reading. I think that will really help them.

OR: What about the benefit to you of using SafariU? At the very least, it sounds like not having to deal with licensing issues is a big bonus, and a time savings.

CA: I love the way that works. I think that's great. I can use all of this diverse content and I don't have to worry about copyright and fair use. I also don't have to worry about it becoming obsolete. Traditional textbooks may be published on archival quality, acid-free paper, but why bother? By the time the book comes out, the content is already obsolete.

"This is a very exciting concept. It's kind of like seeing the World Wide Web in its infancy."

OR: Relative to the marketplace, then, is this a service you feel that, as it evolves, will gain currency? Have you seen anything like this before?

CA: I've never tried any other custom publishing services. But I really do think this is a very exciting concept. I don't have anything to compare SafariU to, but I think it's great. I look forward to it getting better. It's kind of like seeing the World Wide Web in its infancy. Even way back when the web was only text, it was still very cool.

The biggest attraction for me is the fact that I can create the book my way. For whatever reason, I tend to view things differently from most textbook authors out there. I haven't found any books that present the material my students need--and in the way I think it should be presented--in a single textbook. So the buffet model SafariU offers is great. I can be fairly critical of this beta version, but I'm fundamentally in support of it. SafariU is a very dynamic tool.

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