Developing a participatory textbook for the Internet

Developing a participatory textbook for the Internet

Larson, Timothy R

Developing a Participatory Textbook for the Internet*


This paper summarizes the design and development ofa participatory calculus textbook offered as a subscription site on the Internet. The project contains nearly 19,000 HTML files presenting the complete single and multivariable calculus curriculum in addition to a wealth of supplemental content. As an interactive multimedia textbook, it integrates text, graphics, animation, simulation, and live mathematics. The text also features collaborative environments similar to the familiar online chat and news. We call the convergence of interactive multimedia course materials with context-sensitive collaborative environments a participatory document. The structure ofthis project represents over four years of design research while implementation represents several person-years. Hundreds of students have used the text and based partly on their feedback, we are now preparing a number of additional projects. We present the principles developed in designing, implementing, and hosting participatory textbooks and show the applicability to a wide range of disciplines.


In 1994, we developed a project called Interactive Calculus, a comprehensive interactive multimedia textbook on CD-ROM.1 The core material for the project was based on the best-selling Calculus by Larson, Hostetler, and Edwards, published by Houghton Mifflin Company. It became the first commercially successful CD-ROM textbook in calculus. Much of this success was due to its unique features, which made it much more than an electronic “book.”2

Late in 1996, we began planning a revision to the project, to be released in February 1998. As with any revision project, we studied user requests and technical support logs to probe for new features or enhancements to existing features. However, it was impossible to ignore what was happening in the software industry at that time. The browser wars were at their peak and streaming media was in its infancy. Some quick tests revealed that, if desired, we could reproduce the entire project on the Internet, but this would require an enormous leap of faith. The tools we used in our tests were all early beta versions, and shipping dates for the required tools were perilously close to our own release schedule. Not surprisingly, the decision was to stick to a CD– ROM version. However, we got the OK to use “Internet-friendly” production techniques, and the CD-ROM project began.

During production, informal testing revealed significant benefits to moving the project to the Internet. We would be able to stress student communication skills. In addition, we would be able to reduce the complexity of the software.

Developing communication skills lies at the heart of education, and you will see this theme threaded throughout this article. Perhaps surprisingly, Internet-based software promises additional benefits that reduce complexity.

* A standard, ubiquitous interface, reducing the need to learn new interfaces.

* Little or no product installation, reducing the need for technical support.

* Platform-independent software, reducing the cost of creating cross-platform software.

* The elimination of product-specific system requirements in favor of platform-specific requirements, reducing the likelihood of returns.

Late in production, with a new generation of browsers and streaming media tools available, the decision was made to go ahead with the Internet-delivered version. Internet Calculus was born, and we tell its story below.

A. Design Goals

Our design goals for Internet Calculus fell into three major categories, the first being curriculum goals. (Table 1.)

Our pedagogical goals centered on improving the efficacy of calculus content. A growing body of evidence shows that multimedia improves student learning. For example, in a study of multimedia materials for a beginning course, “Comparative measures indicate that multimedia materials are superior to traditional materials. Students believe that multimedia materials are more effective.”3 (Table 2.)

Finally, our goal was to respond to market needs discovered in our review of prior projects. Note that the original project supported only the Windows environment. (Table 3.)

B. Design Constraints

There were four major areas of design constraints. The first three are common project constraints: cost, end-user requirements, and standards. A fourth constraint is not often discussed, but is of equal import: design philosophy.

Cost for the project was set between 5000 and 6000 person– hours of work, mostly developing tools and producing the content.

A decision was made to allow no third-party license fees, primarily to keep the end-user price low.

End-user requirements are usually a difficult issue in software development. Developers fight to develop for the latest hardware available, while marketers cringe about any hardware excluded. In this case, end-user requirements were relatively easy to determine, since the popular Internet is still in its infancy. The product had to be usable by modem with commonly available PCs. In addition, the price had to be less than or equal to the price of the associated book.

Standards were tremendously difficult to determine, because they remained a moving target throughout design, production, and even release of the product. Recall that we began in late 1996 with third generation browsers and streaming audio and first generation streaming video available. The product was released in early 1998 with fourth generation browsers, fifth generation streaming audio, and third generation streaming video. At the time we were producing this, there was no support for math on the World Wide Web. Support for frames and scripting was uncertain at best. Even the HTML implementation differed among various “standard” browsers.

Fortunately, we were united in our design philosophy. Our product had to be a complete, comprehensive resource, just like the textbook. We wanted students to have the choice of using the product instead of the textbook. We concentrated most of our budget on the content, instead of on tools. Finally, we chose not to implement a proprietary classroom management solution, but to produce a product that works in a variety of classroom management environments.

C. Final Design Features

The final design for Internet Calculus includes a wealth of features. All of the features are tightly integrated, but for convenience, we break them down into four major categories: content, presentation, tools, and communication.

The core content of the product was rendered as bitmap pages within an HTML framework. The text was rendered in 1-color with a transparent background, producing pages small enough to be delivered by modem. Streaming video was used for playing both video clips and animations. Animations were created for all dynamic graphics. For example, Figure 1 shows the method of exhaustion, described by Archimedes. The animation is able to show successively higher degree polygons, providing a visual proof of the method.

The interactivity goes beyond passive media, however, using simulation and exploration. Simulations such as those in Figure 2 allow students to intuitively interact with a mathematical system. Explorations occur in closed form, as questions posed for discussion or to develop further insight. However, they are also presented in open form, allowing the user to change parameters or even the question itself, as shown in Figure 3. Open explorations are linked to the product from within each lesson. Each is provided in Derive, Maple, Mathcad, and Mathematica format. Learning to use these tools is not a trivial task for students, yet it is likely that they will use them later in their careers. Annotations in the open explorations provide a practical basis for teaching students how to use these powerful tools as they learn the mathematics behind them. Finally, Figure 4 shows the Graph Editor, which allows the user to explore the relationship between equations and their graphs.

Supplemental resources include enrichment material such as journal articles, technology pitfalls, connections, and projects. Also included are motivational resources such as look-aheads, math trends, and historical notes. In addition, the solutions to all odd exercises are included to provide a huge resource of extra examples. As can be seen, the core text and supplemental resources have been blended to form the core content of Internet Calculus.

The product provides two frameworks for presentation: a hierarchical view and a flattened syllabus view. The user navigates the hierarchical view via context-based controls, as shown in Figure 5. The text-based links allow the user to see their location in the context tree. They also allow easy navigation to any higher level in the tree. The left arrow moves back to the previous context, while the right arrow moves forward to contexts recently visited. The syllabus view presents the material in a familiar syllabus format with links for each daily session, as shown in Figure 6.

Supporting tools include the integrated search features such as a Features Index, an Index of Terms, a Theorem Index, and a bookmarks tool. The Features Index provides an organized list of interesting resources within the product, categorized by feature. The Index of Terms and Theorem Index provide a search engine to search by keyword. The bookmarks tool allows the user to save favorite locations to return to using named bookmarks.

A Syllabus Builder is provided for instructors to build their syllabi offline and post them to the web-site. This tool is currently provided as a standalone application.

The communication features of Internet Calculus are integrated via a toolbar as shown in Figure 7. Chat provides a real-time discussion area where students and instructors meet to discuss problem solving or to simply have online discussions about the course material. News provides a chance to post lasting commentary about the subject at hand. Both chat and news are context-sensitive. Mail List provides a chance for discussion offline. Of course, the previously discussed syllabus builder/viewer provide a means for instructors to communicate with students in a familiar format.

D. Development

We developed a number of tools and processes to produce Internet Calculus. A brief overview of these tools and processes follows. Throughout, we talk about 1997 as if it were generations ago. The reason is simple-Internet software has been leaping forward a generation every 12-18 months.

The first hurdle to dear was to develop a production process that would efficiently convert existing materials from QuarkXPress into web form. We had to set math inline and render a variety of embedded graphics into web-ready format, using an automated process. The tools available in 1997 turned out not to be up to the task, forcing us to develop the entire production process ourselves. Style sheets6 and MathML’ should make future production of scientific documents much more straightforward.

With page production solved, our next task was to choose video, animation, simulation, and exploration formats and tools. In 1997, there were a number of competing streaming video standards, most of which we tested. We chose Real Networks solution because it had the broadest shipping platform support at the time, including Windows, Macintosh, and several flavors of Unix. Real streaming media has become quite popular since that time and has been through several revisions.

We investigated a number of approaches to presenting animations, and briefly considered writing our own animation engine. However, the animations we were testing played well through the RealPlayer, so we chose to use that engine. Since that time, a number of web animation solutions have come out and a standard, called SMIL,8 is being developed.

The choice of environment for creating simulations was never in question. The Java environment, developed by Sun Microsystems, was the de facto standard for producing web applets, and remains a strong environment today. Java is a pure object-oriented environment using syntax very close to C. This allows programmers to implement object-oriented techniques using a familiar language.

Since this project is a revision of an existing project, we had a significant number of existing open explorations. There are over 120 explorations available, implemented in Derive, Maple, Mathcad, and Mathematica. Currently, the user must have loaded a local copy of one of these programs to use the explorations. There are efforts under way to provide applications such as these via the Internet. Currently, a plug-in called Mathview is available for manipulating mathematics within a browser. However, it still requires software to be loaded locally, so it is not yet an optimal solution.

All multimedia documents require a presentation and context (or navigation) engine. We implemented the Internet Calculus engines using JavaScript, which we had hoped was nearing standardization at the time of development. In fact, this has turned out to be the least stable standard to follow, and we have had to introduce platform- and browser-specific code for nearly every permutation. Consequently, we have focused our efforts in current projects on implementing most code on the server, reducing user system requirements.

Although we concentrated mostly on producing content, we did develop two general-purpose tools during production. A graph editor provides a stripped-down graphing calculator onscreen for manipulating two-dimensional graphs of equations. In addition, a syllabus builder provides a tool for instructors to post syllabus views of Internet Calculus, exactly matching their syllabus to the product.

Finally, we implemented the integrated chat, news, and subscription transaction and reporting system. While there are other commercial tools available to provide these services, ours provides these and other modules in an integrated system. Our current server system consists of these tools, as well as the syllabus builder and context server.


When we started this project, we thought we were simply producing an interactive multimedia textbook. We had never considered the implications that would follow from creating an integrated collaborative environment and making it available “outside the laboratory.” We had “discovered” a new type of document, created in the synergy of interactive multimedia, collaboration, and ubiquitous access. We chose to call this a participatory document.

What we had “discovered” however is a very old method of pedagogical instruction. The earliest recorded documents are cave paintings and petroglyphs, which were used not simply as a static recording, but as the focal point for storytelling and collaboration. The connection is striking-a group of users gathering around the campfire, hearing and commenting on stories, to learn about the world about them. This form of communication is so powerful that we still use it in formal learning settings today. In our classrooms, we still gather to draw images on stone (using chalk), listening to and commenting on the stories presented.

At the ACM 97: The Next 50 Years of Computing conference Bran Ferren speculated on where technology is taking us. He envisioned a storytelling architecture that would reshape our thinking about the computers with which we directly interact. His argument becomes more compelling when we consider our experiences with participatory documents so far.

A Applicability to Other Disciplines

Although our first participatory document was developed in mathematics, the techniques are applicable to many areas of learning. Any discipline that fosters communication will benefit from this approach. We have already discussed the benefits of multimedia learning materials. In addition, there is mounting evidence for the benefits of integrating written communication into the curriculum. Cote and Custeau note that “From Bloom’s taxonomy, one can see that writing articles for general audiences lets students practice activities at the three higher levels of cognitive objectives: analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.” They also note that “Writing a popularized article allows students to also attain the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy: knowledge acquisition, comprehension, and application.” Although the authors focused on writing complete articles, the process of annotating materials online requires similar skills and would seem to bear similar benefits.

Although we stress the importance of communication, adding interactivity is also of great benefit. Today mathematics education stresses taking numerical, analytical, and graphical approaches. However, open explorations and simulations add a fourth approach-that of experimentation. Students of engineering and related sciences benefit a great deal from playing “what-if ” scenarios using simulations. Animation and visualization software help students of chemistry and related sciences develop important skills and insight.

The application of interactivity is not limited to mathematics and the sciences. We have produced dozens of pedagogical simulations including elections, music theory, environmental science, journalism, sporting events, and even being president of the United States. In addition, presentations and simulations of historical events and of other cultures help bring unfamiliar experiences to life.

The key to making simulations and dynamic presentations successfil is to tie them directly to core curriculum materials. Students learn to associate and synthesize their exploratory experiences with those about which they read. Providing the means for them to communicate their insights makes the process dynamic. The integration of these approaches creates a powerful new medium.

B. Design Essentials

Participatory documents can range in scope from the comprehensive coverage of a curriculum to short articles such as this one. There are three general requirements for creating a participatory document. An interactive multimedia document lies at its heart. It must be integrated with a set of communications tools to allow for commentary by the user community. Finally, it must be available to and used by a community of users. In other words, the document does not truly become participatory until it has been used. This is the most compelling reason why this type of document arose in an Internet environment-it draws life from the enormous base of potential users.


Every advance in media fosters fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) among those producing and using the old media. Experience does not justify FUD, however. The past shows us that old forms do not disappear-though they may change. Radio and television did not destroy the print world-in fact, more has been printed since the advent of these technologies than before. Similarly, the Internet has not destroyed the old technologies, though it may transform them. For example, the World Wide Web likely will converge inseparably with television within the next decade.

The World Wide Web has already transformed the Internet, advancing communications and information delivery. We believe that documents designed to exploit the convergence of these technologies will redefine our thinking about learning materials. But the Web likely will change information distribution as well. It virtually eliminates the costs of manufacturing, packaging, distribution, and inventory. Installation no longer requires technical skill– a mouse click will do. Schools will no longer need to provide specialized labs for instructional technology, allowing them to provide technology-enhanced learning more cost effectively.

Denning sums it up nicely. “Through the CD/ROM, the cable TV channel, the modem, and the Internet, the microchip challenges the book, the library, and the classroom, offering new access to knowledge just in time to overcome the turmoil of the obsolescence it creates.”5

*Based on “Developing a Participatory Textbook for the Internet” by Timothy R. Larson, which appeared in the Proceedings of the 1999 Frontiers in Education Conference, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 10-14 November 1999, IEEE Catalog No. 99CH37011, pp. 13b7-1 through 13b7-6, c 1999 IEEE.


1. Larson, T.R, “Making an Interactive Calculus Textbook,” Proceedings of Interactive Multimedia ’94-Society for Applied Learning Technology, 1994, pp. 56-59.

2. Larson, R.E., “CD-ROM Textbooks and Calculus, Part I,” FOCUS, Mathematical Association ofAmerica, vol. 14, No. 3, June 1994, pp. 3-5. Part II, vol. 14, no. 4, Aug. 1994, pp. 4-5.

3. Almstrum, V., et al., “Evaluation: Turning Technology from Toy to Tool,” ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, vol. 28, no. SI, 1996, pp. 201-217.

4. Cote, V., and G. Custeau, “An Integrating Pedagogical Tool Based on Writing Articles,” ACM SIGCSE Bulletin, vol. 24, no. 1, Mar. 1992, pp. 38-41.

5. Denning, P., “How We Will Learn,” in Beyond Calculation: TheNext Fy Years of Computing, ed. Denning, P., Metcalfe, R, Copernicus, New York, NY, 1997, p. 268.

6. Bos, B., et al., Editors, Cascading Style Sheets, level 2 CSS2 Specification, W3C, 1998.

7. Ion, P., and R. Miner, Editors, Mathematical Markup Language (MathML) 1.0 Specification, W3C, 1998.

8. Hoschka, P., Editor, Synchronized Multimedia Integration Language (SMIL) 1.0 Specifications W3C, 1998.


Tim Larson is a software developer and author, since 1984. He is an owner, senior vice president, division head, and head of research and development at Larson Texts, Inc. He has been actively involved in developing or writing nearly 40 products since 1987. He graduated from Penn State University with a BS in

Mathematics with a Computer Science emphasis. Tim’s professional expertise lies in interactive multimedia design and development, educational technology, and publishing. He is also interested in ubiquitous computing, affective computing, and the social impact of technology. Married since 1983, he has two teenage children, who lovingly put up with him.

Address: TDLC, Div. of Larson Texts, Inc., 900 State St., #102, Erie, PA, 16501-1425; telephone: 814-461-8900; fax: 814-461– 8902; e-mail:


Rsearch and Development TDLC, a Division of Larson Texts, Inc.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Jan 2001

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