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The Textbook That Is Truly Free


A First Course in Linear Algebra

Rob Beezer, Professor, Mathematics and Computer Science Department, University of Puget Sound

The Truly Free Textbook

By Rob Beezer

Comments on this article can be sent to the author at <beezer@ups.edu> and/or can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

In September 2003, I began a personal project to convert my linear algebra course notes to an electronic format. Simultaneously, I became even more frustrated with textbooks that were being released in new editions containing only minor changes, and with other textbooks going out of print, while costs continued to rise quickly. During a sabbatical leave the next spring, I began in earnest to convert my course notes into an open-source textbook. While teaching the course the next fall, I completed the narrative.

The next two years were spent adding more exercises and polishing the rough edges as I used the text in my courses. Version 1.0 of A First Course in Linear Algebra was released in December 2006 with an open-content license: the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL). I continue to make enhancements to the textbook, many in reaction to suggestions and corrections received from readers around the world. In addition, courses from a wide range of institutions—including community colleges (Miramar), liberal arts colleges (Smith), and state universities (Colorado State)—have started using the textbook.

I have a copyright interest in my textbook, but I have given everyone greater freedoms through the GFDL license. This is in contrast to electronic books that can be even more restrictive than traditional books through technological restrictions on printing and viewing and on the lifetime of the book. The publishing industry calls this Digital Rights Management (DRM), but it might be better called Digital Rights Restrictions (DRR). Readers may make as many copies of my textbook as they wish—in perpetuity and at no cost. Readers may make modifications, and through my careful use of TeX software for typesetting the textbook, making changes has been made easy by design. The principal condition of the license is that if a reader makes changes and distributes the modified version, he or she must apply the same license, so that others can build on the improvements. As a practical matter, most users will simply choose to contribute their changes back to the project.

This textbook is intended and designed to be printed. However, technology makes matters of production, marketing, inventory, and distribution within the reach of an individual. All of the production of the textbook is accomplished with free software, as typically supplied in Linux distributions. A website (http://linear.ups.edu) provides the most recent updates, allowing potential adopters to obtain their own evaluation copies. Online versions are provided in two formats (XML and jsMath) for convenience when (or where) printing is impractical or expensive. Physical copies may be ordered through the print-on-demand service at Lulu.com, relieving me of the financial commitment to maintain an inventory and ordering and billing procedures. My 718-page textbook costs $29.70, whereas the text I previously used in my course now costs $141.33 for 624 pages. Pricing on Lulu.com includes a $5 contribution to the project. Readers may (and often do) make financial contributions online through a service provided by Amazon.com. One school printed a shortened version to match the needs of its course but included a $5 donation in the cost of each copy. Although I will probably not hit a “home run” monetarily with this text, I would like to demonstrate that an author can be compensated as well as he or she would be by royalties received for a successful traditional textbook.

Unencumbered electronic versions make the textbook more useful for students than a traditional textbook. Many readers comment on the very complete explanations and solutions, including the details usually neglected by other mathematics texts. This explains why the textbook is longer than typical (yet remains affordable). A key feature is that PDF and online versions use extensive hyperlinks between definitions, theorems, and proofs—an invaluable asset for a textbook that is likely to be a student's first post-calculus exposure to the rigor of higher mathematics. In these ways, a free electronic textbook is able to do things that a DRR-ed textbook can never do. Further, conversion to other formats is often straightforward. With access to a Sony Reader this past summer, I was able to create a PDF version optimized for the physical characteristics of this device. Unfortunately, Amazon's Kindle does not seem open to freely distributable mathematics (but I would like to be proven wrong).

This textbook began, in large measure, as a demonstration project to answer the following questions. Could an individual, simply as a content expert, use computers and networks for the creation and distribution of a textbook? Could a free textbook still generate financial return? Would others use, and contribute to, an open-content textbook? The answer to all of these questions has been yes. As a result of my experience, I expect that other authors’ frustration with the textbook industry will lead to similar efforts to create quality textbooks, provided directly to students with generous licenses that are more expansive than what copyright allows. In the future, I will continue to expand and improve my textbook, encourage and help others to produce open content in mathematics, and promote the benefits and expanded possibilities afforded by software and content that is truly free.

© 2009 Rob Beezer. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/).

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