Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

February 7, 2020

A textbook that can be read on a phone? It’s logical!

Philosophy lecturer Ian Schnee‘s e-book about logic has proved to be irresistible to tech-savvy students. And there’s no reason other faculty can’t accomplish the same with their texts.


ian schnee picture

Ian Schnee, lecturer, Philosophy

By using a new e-book in his Introduction to Logic classes, Ian Schnee wanted to engage his students more fully with the material and save them money — as much as $55,000 in just three quarters.

To make it happen, Schnee wrote and unveiled his own e-book in winter 2019. His Logic Course Adventure, an active learning textbook for formal logic, was his latest effort to modernize the classroom experience with evidence-based teaching and learning approaches with a slight twist: he wanted to take his teaching into students’ natural spaces — think cell phones and other devices — and show them that traditional courses in the social sciences can be exciting and fun.

“I want to make philosophy fun and engaging for my students — because philosophy is all of these things — but I can’t ask them to read 10-20 pages of dry prose from a book that hasn’t been updated in decades and expect them to come prepared to discuss logic during my lectures,” Schnee said. “The traditional textbooks that are in use today for teaching logic are dense, hard to read, and frankly, boring.”

The evidence shows that forcing students to read traditional textbooks is not the best way to learn. But if you couple reading to engaging quizzes as they read, they’re more likely to absorb the material, Schnee said. And so far, his highly interactive e-book has accomplished that and more, his students agree.

“I was at first a bit wary of this e-book because I believe my class was one of the first to use it,” student Kelsey Kinoshita said. “But it really contributed to my learning, and the class would not have been the same without it.”

student reading textbook on their phone picture

Student interacting with the textbook on their phone.Elizabeth Lowry

Alex Saveau read the e-book on the go on his phone, sometimes on the way to a part-time job – and found the seemingly endless number of problems captivating.

“What really makes a difference is that you can engage with the textbook,” Saveau said. “For other classes, I find myself fighting to not drift off into a daydream while reading the textbook.”

But Schnee’s e-book challenged him constantly with quick short quizzes, even after just reading a few sentences. The constant problems that require an answer before moving on to another section “keep you focused and accountable,” Saveau said.

E-book becomes latest piece in modern teaching environment

During the past decade, Schnee has carefully deployed new technologies and teaching approaches inside and outside the classroom to increase learning and engagement.

He “flipped” his classrooms when appropriate, and when Poll Everywhere, the UW’s preferred classroom response system, was introduced at the University in 2016, he became one of its earliest adopters.

During lectures, Schnee uses Poll Everywhere and other evidence-based teaching strategies such as collaborative group work, think-pair-share activities — where students work together to come up with answers — and the judicious use of random calling, which increases participation while decreasing instructor bias. With the e-book, he wanted to get the same engagement — only this time outside the classroom.

A very active e-book

Everyone learns better by actively engaging with the material, so Schnee knew his e-book would have to do a lot more heavy lifting than a regular book, even a typical e-book. E-books have been around for a while, but most are passive like their paper-based counterparts.

“I wanted to revolutionize the paper book, and create an e-book that was fully interactive, with intuitive software and no learning curve for my students,” Schnee said.

He had been thinking about it for 10 years, but it was only until recently that tech caught up to his vision. In 2018, he spent nine months writing his book and building his own website to host it. The latter was more by necessity than design. There are plenty of e-book platforms on the web, but many are quite costly — as much as $1,000 per year — or unwieldy for creators and users alike. So, Schnee learned programming to build his own.

“I called it an adventure, because I wanted the book to be fun,” Schnee said. “Reading separate sections of the e-book doesn’t take a lot of time, and I discovered that many students did all of the problems. And they kept telling me they wanted more and more problems. It was quite a pleasant surprise.”

Here’s a typical example from Ian Schnee’s e-book. To get the answer, visit the site and work through the problem:

1.1 Welcome to the Force

A file folder lands on your desk with a thud. You’re a rookie police detective, so the Sergeant puts you on the case no one else wants. A bank robbery. Inside the file you see pictures of three suspects: Pia, Quinn, and Raquel.

“We’ve got all three of them in custody,” the Sergeant says. “At least one of them is involved, but I can’t keep them past morning. You need to figure out who did it by 8 a.m.”

Now you know why no one else wanted this case. It takes you all night but you finally get through the file. By 7 a.m., here’s what you’ve figured out:

1. One or more of these people is guilty: Pia, Quinn and Raquel.

2. No one else was involved.

3. Pia never works without Quinn. So if Pia is guilty, so is Quinn.

4. Raquel never works alone.

What do you tell the Sergeant?

Former student Andrew Stahl was happy to put on his “rookie cop” thinking cap to come up with the answer.

“The e-book enabled us to learn the fundamentals of logic on our own so class time could be spent working on more complex problems and answering student questions,” he said. “I certainly found it more engaging than a regular book, as the embedded problems keep you from moving forward without first understanding what you have already read.”

So, you want to create an e-book

If you’re interested in creating an e-book, Schnee has some advice.

Don’t go it alone: Schnee tells colleagues there’s no reason they have to go at it alone. So, if you are ready to get started with an e-book, he will be happy to chat with any faculty member about his own experiences and process in putting together the logic adventure, and point them to the appropriate resources, including UW Libraries and other faculty who are involved in evidence-based teaching.

Schnee created his e-book from a combination of open-source software and his own code, and he’s hoping that instructors at other schools will one day use it as well.

Schnee also notes that every feature of his e-book is based on “empirically supported pedagogy.”

Other pointers to keep in mind:

  • Start small: There’s no need to write an entire textbook at once. Schnee’s first draft only covered 75 percent of his course material, but instructors could start with just one chapter or assignment.
  • Use ready-made software: For instructors who don’t want to make their own website, they can start with Pages in Canvas, which have much of the same functionality.
  • Think accessibility: Schnee is committed to making his e-book highly accessible, building in captioning and alt-text.
  • Don’t crash: He learned a quick lesson about managing high internet traffic (his website crashed on the first week of class, for four straight days, before he fixed the problem).
  • Make it interactive: For now, his e-book is not being used for grading. The problems are for practice only, but students really want them, so he is planning on doubling them in an upgraded version.
  • Iterate: An e-book is a living book. Feedback from students continue to make it better, and Schnee adds more problems as necessary.

Not just for philosophy

Schnee remarks that e-books like his are not just for philosophy and logic. His students agree:

“Since this textbook was for logic, which has problem sets, I think it may work well for other science and math-based classes,’’ Kinoshita said. “The strengths of Ian’s textbook — easy to understand, concise, entertaining examples, straightforward, engaging — are what would transfer best in creating textbooks/e-books for other classes.”