Math instructor creates interactive online algebra textbook
Eric Kean, a mathematics instructor at Western Washington University, is the author of an interactive online textbook at myalgebrabook.com. Photo by Christopher Wood | University Communications intern
Eric Kean, the viola instructor/math lecturer at Western Washington University who developed content for pre-calculus and AP statistics iPhone apps last year, has two more things to add to his resume: Web developer and textbook author.
“It was a lot of work, but it was a blast,” says Kean, who just finished up the site in September.
The book is free to use online, and any student or teacher is welcome to use it, Kean says.
Unlike a lot of math textbooks, myalgebrabook.com takes a context-based approach to exploring concepts, Kean says. Each chapter poses a mathematical question and then, using a voice that’s more casual and friendly than most stilted textbooks, guides the student through the various mathematical concepts related to the solving of that question.
Take, for example, Chapter 4, which deals with quadratic relationships. It is centered on this question: “As a kid you've probably tossed a ball or an egg with a friend, watching its path as it traveled through the air. While sometimes you may have tossed it closer or farther, did you notice that the general path of the egg was always the same?”
Kean then presents the equation that expresses the height of the egg at any given moment. The rest of the chapter is spent working through the equation to uncover its many mathematical aspects. The idea is to present the bigger mathematical concepts as being part of one cohesive whole, Kean says.
“So many people don’t see math as anything beyond the details,” Kean says. “That’s why in the book I talk about patterns. Math is really about asking the right questions.”
Each chapter begins with a section called “Making Connections,” in which Kean explains how the various mathematical concepts learned in the book relate to each other.
“Students forget how things are connected,” Kean says. “I’ll feel successful if a student at the beginning of the book thinks mathematics is just formulas, and at the end of the book he thinks it’s this connected thing where you ask questions and discover new concepts.”
One key aspect of the book is its customizability, Kean says. Teachers can create custom tests that even include the instructor’s own questions. They can add personal notes to each chapter, tailoring the instruction to a specific set of students. Tests can be graded automatically, and the site keeps statistics for each student. Students, too, can customize their learning, attaching review notes to particular sections or retaking missed questions to improve learning.
“I want the readers to feel like they’re a part of the process,” Kean says. “I think that really helps people learn.”
Together with Daniel Hanley, a research associate in Science, Mathematics and Technology Education at Western, Kean is applying for a National Science Foundation grant to study whether the website helps students learn. If he gets the grant, Kean says he’ll create a second online textbook for the study and teaching of pre-calculus.