An Open Letter to Future Authors

Dear Future Textbook Author Who Knows LaTeX,

LaTeX is a markup language which is designed to help you produce nice PDF. PreTeXt is a markup language which does everything LaTeX can do, and in addition provides multiple output formats, interactivity, and accessibility. If you are writing a textbook, you will find it well worth the effort to learn PreTeXt. And it is better to start with PreTeXt instead of writing in LaTeX and then converting.

A major attraction of PreTeXt is that your book will be available in multiple formats, including highly accessible HTML. Formats are only part of the story: if your book is merely the book you would have written in LaTeX, translated into PreTeXt, the result will fail to achieve its potential. What will be missing are the features of PreTeXt which support teaching and learning.

But first, what is a textbook? In the past, the textbook was the source of all material being taught in a course and also the source of all examples, exercises, etc. These days it is common for a course to call on multiple resources. PreTeXt makes it possible to bring back the time when the textbook contained everything – with PreTeXt the textbook can be the portal to everything needed by the instructor and the student.

And second, what is your vision for your textbook? Some textbooks are a monograph: one person’s articulation of a particular subject – a beautiful and coherent exposition on a topic. A monograph, even if it contains many exercises, is no longer sufficient to be the sole resource for teaching or learning a subject. A modern textbook can be crafted to enhance teaching and learning, supporting good pedagogy and recognizing the realities that face both students and teachers.

If you are writing a monograph, some PreTeXt features will not be of use to you. But you will find that PreTeXt helps you think about the structure of your document, resulting in better exposition. The extra features are available if you later decide to use them.

If you are trying to actively support teaching and learning, then PreTeXt has many features which will help you create a textbook that improves learning and enhances teaching.

For example, some PreTeXt books have preview activities at the start of each section. A preview activity gives the student a few tasks to perform – tasks which they are capable of doing with only their current knowledge and which introduce (without using any terminology) the main concepts of that section. This supports good pedagogy, because

definition example

works fine for research and graduate level exposition, but in most of the undergraduate curriculum

examples terminology

works better.

Other PreTeXt books have reading questions at the end of each section. An ideal reading question is easy for a student to answer if they have understood the material in the section, and difficult if they have not. Reading questions are graded on effort.

Your book can be available in an online system (such as Runestone) which gives the instructor easy access to the students’ answers to preview activities or reading questions. A quick glance at those answers immediately before class will allow the instructor to productively modify their plans for the classroom, allowing more time for those topics where the students need it most.

So: think about how instructors might use your book. Then create a book which will help them be better instructors.

Let’s think about the students. What is the single most significant cause, throughout the history of STEM education, for students having difficulty learning the material? A good case can be made for: the long delay between when they answer a question and when they receive feedback on their answer. Some STEM fields, notably physics and computer science, have recognized this issue and taken effect steps to address it. Numerous types of problems have been created, where students can automatedly receive instant feedback on their work. Misconceptions and common errors are caught quickly, and the result is better learning.

PreTeXt supports many types of interactive problems. Multiple choice and short answer, of course. Also Parsons Problems (multi-step answers where the steps are given, to be put in the correct order), Matching (match Column A with Column B), Clickable Area, and more. Not every type of problem is suitable for instant feedback, but surprisingly many are.

PreTeXt also supports multiple types of interactive demonstrations, such as GeoGebra, Desmos, Sage cells, CalcPlot3d, etc. Students can explore an example as much as they wish, and the demonstration can be reset just by reloading the page.

So: think about how students might use your book. Then craft a book which will help them to learn more: more than they would just by reading clear explanations, seeing illustrative examples, and turning in their work to be graded later.

All of the interactive examples and exercises can be right there in the book: there is no need to cobble together and keep track of a variety of resources. If the book is hosted in Runestone, the instructor has direct access to submitted student work and a dashboard of learning analytics.

Some books have introductory videos in each section and some have videos showing worked examples. These are appreciated by those students who prefer learning by watching and listening. It is better for your book to include quality material that you have selected, instead of having your users wade through the swampy haystack of the Internet.

It takes a while to start thinking holistically about how your book will serve as the interface which connects the material you are passionate about to the students learning the material and the instructors helping the students to learn. The ability to properly support all of that activity, by yourself as an OER author, is a new idea which is now made possible by the combination of PreTeXt and Runestone. But you are not by yourself: there is an active community of PreTeXt and Runestone users and developers, and there is a growing list of textbooks which illustrate what is now possible.

A good textbook might present the material in a clear and coherent manner, but a great textbook actively supports teaching and learning.

PreTeXt and Runestone are free and open source tools which can help you craft a great textbook.


David Farmer
Director of Programs