We know how hard it is to find a decent textbook for an IT or Computer Science course. It's a complaint we've heard a lot at O'Reilly, while talking with instructors and trainers about what's not working for them in the classroom. And we've come up with a solution: SafariU, O'Reilly's new web-based platform for creating, publishing and sharing textbooks. With SafariU, you can create and publish your own textbook, selecting exactly the book chapters, sections, or articles you need from the impressive Safari database. SafariU costs you nothing to use and offers your students more focused course content at less cost.
Professor Kent Sandoe of Chico State University's College of Business wanted to produce a textbook on information security in conjunction with his Systems Management course this semester, but at the last minute those plans fell through and he turned to SafariU. We caught up with him to find out the details of how he made SafariU work for him.
O'Reilly: How long have you been at California State University, Chico, and what courses do you teach?
Kent Sandoe: I've been at Chico State six and a half years. I teach in the Information Systems department in the College of Business.
OR: What's your title?
KS: Professor of Management Information Systems. I'm in the networking area. At the moment, I'm teaching a course on IT security and one on web programming, but I've taught just about everything.
OR: You teach courses toward a major?
KS: Yes. There's a lot of interest in network security right now, so we're finding ourselves kind of swamped with those courses. Students at Chico State are very sensitive to the labor market; many have family in the Bay Area and are pretty plugged into the employment scene there, so we're very demand-driven.
OR: Can you describe the teaching materials you've been using in your courses?
KS: Teaching information technology is a constant challenge, because the content changes so quickly. The available instructional materials are almost always out of date. By the time a textbook makes it into print, it's basically obsolete. The typical cycle for producing a hardbound textbook is two or three years, and that's just ludicrous in IT-related disciplines. So we do the best we can with existing textbooks, and we supplement with other material we find online. It's a huge challenge, but we've had no other choice.
OR: Given the constant innovation and advances in technology, I suspect this trend will only increase, which means the challenge for you will only increase.
KS: Absolutely. It's fueled by the fact that our students are quite savvy to employment prospects, to trends in the industry, to the use of technology in their own lives. So they expect nothing less than the current state-of-the-art. And they're trying to anticipate what's going to be out there two or three years down the line, when they graduate.
OR: So is it fair to say that offering the latest instruction becomes a competitive edge, setting you apart from other institutions?
KS: I would say it has actually become mandatory. ATMs were a competitive edge for banks when they were introduced, but now you can't be a bank without offering them. The same goes for us. Our instruction has to be up to the minute--not to give us an edge, but just to be a program that students will want to attend.
OR: Let's talk about what prompted you to use SafariU. Was this the first time you'd considered using such a process?
KS: I've toyed with lots of things. For classes with no suitable textbooks, I've gone online and researched topics. I've cobbled together articles, papers, and other readings into a reasonable amount of material for students. A couple of years ago, I taught a course in building online communities. There were no books on the topic at the time, so it required an enormous effort to find and compile the reading material.
OR: Has that always been a tactic you've employed in putting together your curriculum?
KS: If you're going to teach certain subjects, you have very few choices. One is to go to the internet and piece something together. Another is to write your own materials, which I've done as well. But that takes time away from my research and the other activities the university expects of me.
OR: What made you choose SafariU specifically?
KS: I've had a great deal of respect for O'Reilly content for many years. I have a bookshelf full of animals--actually a couple bookshelves--and have used them to build my personal knowledge of information technology. I find them very cutting edge, very complete. I've always seen O'Reilly as a publisher of tactical materials.
OR: SafariU is a relatively new offering. How did you become aware of it?
KS: For about three years now, there's been a working relationship between Chico State and O'Reilly. Our students have been involved in testing Safari, so I've used Safari subscriptions to put together course materials in the past.
OR: As I understand it, this time you had a sense of urgency.
KS: Yes, this semester there was a bit of a crisis. I had been working with a traditional textbook publisher. I wrote a book for them a few years back and was talking with them about doing a book on information security. I wanted to use that book in my course, with my students, while I was writing it. Even though this is a hot topic right now, my editor was dragging her feet. It got to be the beginning of the semester and still no commitment to publish the book, so I had to come up with appropriate reading material in a hurry.
OR: So you turned to SafariU?
KS: I've been following the SafariU beta program but was on leave last semester and didn't get a chance to try it then. I had three days before class started this semester and thirty-five students wondering what they'd be reading for the course. I figured it was as good a time as any!
OR: Can you describe your process?
KS: I had to decide right away whether to do an online syllabus or a textbook. I chose the online syllabus, because class was starting in three days and I needed to make the reading material available to students from the outset. I wanted them to begin reading immediately. The turnaround time for the textbook is two weeks. That's fast, but I couldn't afford to wait.
OR: So, given serious time constraints, you chose the online syllabus option. What then?
KS: I just logged on and started going through the materials. I was familiar with some of the O'Reilly titles in the security area, which helped. From the start, I had a sense of which books I would use. I also had an outline for the textbook I had proposed to my publisher, so I used that structure to create the book I wanted for the course.
OR: And you're satisfied that you were able to do that--to build the book you really wanted in three days?
KS: Yes. It was the book I'd envisioned, and it was surprisingly easy to create.
I used two strategies. First, there were the three books I knew I wanted to pull most of the content from. I went through them and selected chapters or sections of chapters, fitting them into my conceptual outline. That worked beautifully. Then I turned to the search function for the topics that I wanted to highlight or explore in greater depth.
For example, Kerberos technique is an authentication approach I wanted to focus on, but I needed more information than any of my three main texts provided. So I did a search on it, and that yielded a wide selection of books. The search function worked so well that I wound up drawing from eight different titles.
OR: How about the interface? Did any one particular feature stand out?
KS: I was really pleased that I could browse to a section, even the one small section of a book I wanted, and add that content with the click of a button.
OR: You're saying that with SafariU you were able to refine or focus your search better than in the past.
KS: Most definitely. The problem with general internet searches is that you're wading through so much junk. You waste too much time scanning content that is totally irrelevant or out of date. This experience was completely different. The content I was drawing from was current and well written. I was confident of its quality and could tell pretty quickly that it was at an appropriate level for my students. I've had to scrape together materials from the internet in the past, but it's been less than satisfactory and has required a whole lot more effort.
OR: Did you upload any of your own material?
KS: If I'd had a few more days, I probably would have done that. Pressed for time, I chose instead to focus on picking the best material I could and organizing it effectively within my structural framework. I would advise anybody who uses SafariU to have a clear outline of the course before starting. That made it so much easier for me.
OR: That brings up an interesting point. One of the features of SafariU is a peer network that will allow you to make your online syllabus or other course material available to your colleagues on the site. Is that something you might do? And, do you think you'd benefit from browsing what others have created, if they share it?
KS: Oh, absolutely. I think there should be incentives for teachers to share and collaborate that way. It will take some time for stodgy academia to catch on. But once it is recognized as a valuable contribution to the discipline, and to academic discourse in general, this kind of knowledge exchange will happen more and more.
OR: Coming from a published textbook author, that's a little surprising. When you publish a traditional textbook, you get compensated for it. Whereas in this instance, you were able to achieve your curricular goals and create the book you needed for the course, but you don't have a contract from your publisher.
KS: True, but I do have students who are happy, and that's more important. The big motivator for me has always been making sure my students get the material they need. And I'll still get the recognition of my peers for what I've done when I can post it to the site.
OR: So it sounds like you would use SafariU again, maybe even more extensively next time?
OR: If you were going to do something different, you would probably upload some of your own material. Anything else, having done it once, that you might do differently?
KS: When I talked to my students about SafariU on the first day of class, a number of them said they wanted a bound textbook in addition to the online syllabus. I went back to my syllabus and was able, literally, to create a book version with a couple clicks. It was remarkably easy to go from syllabus to book, and from book to syllabus looks even easier. So next time, I'll take into account that some students invariably want a printed text.
I may also be less extravagant in compiling my materials. I included a fair bit of recommended reading as reference for the students, but when I pulled it all together as a textbook, it was far too extensive. In creating the printed book, I had to go in and do some pruning to get it down to a reasonable size and cost.
OR: Right. So that is a consideration--the cost for the students.
KS: Definitely. It does influence how you pull the material together if you're going to provide them with a printed book.
OR: What's their reaction been?
KS: It's still early in the semester, but my students seem happy so far. They're keeping up with the reading and appear to be getting something out of it. Class discussions have been lively.
OR: This approach is new for them too, perhaps.
KS: They have general familiarity with O'Reilly, and they associate the name with quality. They see their friends in the workforce building O'Reilly collections, but they're a little intimidated because they haven't seen O'Reilly content used much in the classroom. It's a shift.
OR: But then, if these are the same books being used in the IT workforce and in your courses, that draws a nice parallel.
KS: Oh yes. These students enjoy trying to anticipate and model what their future professional lives will look like. They really appreciate being given anything that captures or hints at that while they're still in school.
OR: The benefit to the students, then, is the professionalism and currency of the material, and the choice they have of accessing it online or in print. One benefit to you has been the obvious time savings. It's still fairly early, but are there any quantifiable metrics you can associate with using SafariU?
KS: Only on the front end, as I've really just begun to use it. There are two things that I would say are exponential improvements over the past. One, as you said, is the time savings. Faced with the lack of adequate material in this subject area, I saved a tremendous amount of time using SafariU. There was no wild goose chase on the web. The second thing is the quality of the material. I feel comfortable knowing that's consistent throughout all of the reading for the class. I've produced a course packet for the students in a very short period of time. And the quality of that packet is superb.
OR: To your knowledge, are there other publishers or services out there doing anything like this?
KS: I think a lot are investigating the possibility. But I don't think anybody else quite has it down. The textbook industry is about to go through a major revolution. It's being challenged for the first time the way Napster challenged the recording industry and forced it to rethink the distribution of music.
OR: You're saying SafariU could influence textbook publishing the way Napster did the music industry?
KS: O'Reilly owns a tremendous quantity of well-written, valuable information. The fact that they're willing to disaggregate it, allowing a professor to go and re-aggregate the content in a way that is meaningful to students, to a particular audience, to a particular course--that's revolutionary.To view a video demo and sign up for access, visit SafariU.
Return to oreilly.com.
Copyright © 2009 O'Reilly Media, Inc.