Alexandria Online

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The People's Physics: Interview with FlexBook author, James Dann

The CK-12 organization ( has built a considerable library of free, downloadable, editable FlexBooks, many of which will be used instead of expensive, printed texts from traditional publishers by California's budget-challenged public school systems next year. As book ordering time approaches, I thought it would be timely to interview a FlexBook author, James Dann, physics teacher at Menlo School in the Bay Area of San Francisco. Together with his father, also a physics teacher, they composed The People's Physics and presented it to CK-12 pro bono publico.

James worked for a while at CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research, where they have some of the coolest toys know to human kind. It was one of the cradles of the Web, and a community garden of open-source information. His early, favorable experience with open-source made the idea of an open-source textbook seem natural.

James and his father took matters into their own hands when the publisher of the physics text they had worked with for years decided to issue a new, "improved" edition. It was more expensive and worse. So they began their micro-revolution.

They teamed up with CK-12 and soon the book was posted. California has already adopted many of the chapters of the book, but not all. One of the things James discovered was that California's state standards of adoption seemed so stringent that only the big publishers could meet them; big publishers, of course, have a vested interest in making sure that the standards stay so stringent that they alone can meet them. Hard for the little guy to sneak in among the Goliaths.

Interestingly, one of the objections that the state had to The People's Physics was that it had no example problems -- you know, the kind at the beginning of the chapter in a different background color that gives you a problem and then shows you the solution in Italics or some such thing. James and his father left this element out on purpose because they always did their example problems in class as part of the presentation of a chapter. Similarly, it had no answer key or teacher's edition. The People's Physics was not written as a course but as a book.

California did not like that and so CK-12 paid a grad student to add examples to all the chapters. It didn't make James very happy, but I pointed out to him that, since it is a FlexBook, people can just cut the examples out if they want.

Stay tuned for the next episode as California gears up to use open-source FlexBooks next year.

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