Computer security students ‘write’ their own textbook

Endless lines of a foreign language scroll across the computer screen. A similarly foreign and heavy textbook offers no help.

Hundreds of commands later, one misplaced character in a 2,000-line assignment can be the difference between a fully functioning program and a mess of letters, numbers and symbols.

Welcome to the delicate and complex world of computer programming, where the language is hard and finding the program bugs is even harder.

A student works diligently on creating a coding textbook. (Thomas Carson Photo)

A student works diligently on creating a coding textbook. (Thomas Carson Photo)

Students and an information science professor are taking a leap forward in Norwich innovation and are creating a new open source textbook for IS 130 Computer Programming I. And they’re doing it in one crash weekend.

“We are creating a textbook called ‘the rooks guide to C++’,”said Jeremy Hansen, a Norwich University professor of computer science. “Primarily students are confronted by three issues: programming is hard, the textbooks are expensive, and the textbooks can be confusing.”

According to efollett.com, the primary Internet listing of university texts, “Problem Solving with C++” lists for $141. For students taking 15 or more credits this can drive the cost for semester books well over $300.

“Early in the semester I had read about some Finnish teachers that had written a mathematics text in one weekend,” Hansen said. “After hearing the usual complaints about how dense our text was, I proposed the idea of writing a new textbook to our students.”

The project was posted to the website kickstarter.com, a web site based around big and small philanthropic donations to people with new and creative ideas ranging from “music to art, design, and technology,” he said.

“We will be writing the book over the course of 36 hours on April 6th and 7th ,” Hansen said. “Once we have finished the book we will upload it to the Internet and update it as we need to over time.”

The number of donations really began to skyrocket after the user-generated science and technology news site Slashdot ran a small article on the web, Hansen said.

On the Slashdot web page there has been an outpouring of comments among readers who commend the students for taking on the challenge of “thinking, collaboration, and progress that revolutionizes industries.”

“Creative Commons book that can be updated and improved each year will be attractive to both the professors and the students,” said a Slashdot user known as “CaptQuark.”

“Asking each class that uses the book to send in the top five suggestions will help give feedback on what can be improved each year,” the user said.

“Originally we were only really looking for money for food, a professional copy editor and the cost of printing a limited edition of texts.” Hansen said “We blew that goal out of the water and we are now at $4,400 and growing. It’s really remarkable.”

The Kickstarter web page states that 170 people have already pitched in to help fund the project. Contributors hail from across the country and all over the world from Austria, France, Spain, England, Sweden, and Australia.

“Honestly, I think I could write a better textbook than the one we currently have,” said Matthew Rousso, 19, a freshman computer security information assurance major from East Northport, N.Y. “With a strong team, we could definitely make a better text in one weekend.”

Prof. Jeremy Hansen with his students creating an online textbook. (Thomas Carson Photo)

Prof. Jeremy Hansen with his students creating an online textbook. (Thomas Carson Photo)

For Hansen, the advantage of having a digital open-source text is that it can be a living document that is improved upon year after year, rather than the traditional style of textbooks. This will enable students to help the book ‘learn’ what is important to beginning coders over time.

“The textbook was all right, at points I thought it was confusing, it didn’t always follow logical steps,” said Ryan Sutherland, 21, a junior computer security information assurance major from Palmyra, Pa. “There certainly is a lot of room for improvement when it comes to our textbooks.”

For Sutherland, bringing in the unique perspective as students who are still learning programming will enable the writers to better connect with how new programmers feel, and what they need to learn to understand the subject as best they can.

“The experience was awesome,” Sutherland wrote after he participated in the weekend’s event for a short bit of time. “I think this forward-thinking project speaks volumes for the work ethic, dedication, and enthusiasm of the students who were involved and the Information Systems discipline at Norwich,” he said,

The dedicated group of writers put the text to rest after a weekend worth of hard work, but will continue to finalize the product in the coming days and update it as time progresses.

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