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If someone ever makes the creation process for this type of visualization accessible to the average university professor, it could blow the lid of the digital textbook market. Most digital textbooks I've seen are basically just putting the text and images on a web page, and maybe integrating multiple choice quizzes. That's seriously under-utilizing the medium. They need to be interactive, and encourage the student to ask questions and run mini experiments.

I'm aware this would be extremely difficult; maybe impossible.

I'm a professor currently writing an online textbook. I can assure you that writing a textbook, without anything interactive, is extremely challenging. I find it hard to imagine a time when my book will be good enough that adding interactive explorables will be the best educational return on time invested. (Though I'm thinking about it!)

I think it definitely is more appropriate in some domains than others. Sometimes you can replace 1000 words with a picture, 100 pictures with a video, and 10 videos with an interactive visualization. In that case, it might not actually be more work. I think the problem is that it's very different work, that professors aren't trained for. Again, it's not easy, maybe impossible. But if it could be done...

PS - I see you're at U as well. I work on a datavis team (iobio) in the genetics department (Steph says hi!). If you ever want to meet up I'd be interested in talking more about this.

Bear in mind that some people are more visual, so I think the interactive visualization should serve as a complement to the 100-1000 words that describe it, not an in-place substitution... (Also, let's not forget about the visually impaired, which need the interface to be accessible).

On average, vision is by far the most important sense for a human. Would you reduce the experience for most people in order to help the minority, especially when there already exist so many text-first books?

Not to dismiss your work, but do you think the best investment of your time is to write another textbook (assuming this is an undergraduate level book in a relatively well-explored field), or in adding detail/great illustrations/great interactive charts to an existing work?

I know (really, like, I know) how detrimental this would be to anyone's career, and I'm not saying this as a moral condemnation of what you're doing - just curious, as I've found myself that there are many cases in these circumstances where the interests of the author do not align with those of the audience. Just wondering if you feel the same way.

I'm writing a textbook on a topic no existing book covers: the internals of a web browser.

For your broader question---I understand what you're saying, but it's very difficult to edit someone else's writing. That's where "committee voice" comes from: it's the lowest common denominator to multiple authors working together. And often how I visualize things comes from how I look at things, and coming up with a visualization for how someone else looks at things is hard.

Take the OP as an example. This is a long blog post on gears in general, but animated by the specific question "what shape are gear teeth". If I were writing a blog post about gears, I wouldn't start at that place. And then, imagine if this blog post started text-only instead of visual. "Involute" would now be described with algebra, not a picture. The algebra is complex (compare the Wiki at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Involute), and that algebra itself would need pictures. Illustrations and explorables aren't, ideally, something you sprinkle onto existing text.

OK yeah then your case doesn't apply to my general question. I imagine that for something that is as visual as your topic, animation would be extra useful though :) (like showing with a slider how reflowing works in certain edge cases or something) Not to egg you on of course :)

And I see what you're saying on how it's hard to build on someone else's work, and how what is relevant to illustrate heavily depends on the viewpoint of the author. Still I can't shake the feeling that there is so much duplication. Maybe I should just look at differently. Anyway, thanks for weighing in.

I'd be really interested in seeing even an outline of that text.

Oh, found it. Noice!


> Not to dismiss your work [...] assuming this is an undergraduate level book in a relatively well-explored field [...] not saying this as a moral condemnation of what you're doing

Why is that your default assumption? Seems very strong when GP gave basically no details.

It wasn't the assumption, I was just being extra careful to emphasize that I wasn't saying 'hey dude you're doing it wrong', but was asking about how the OP felt on a topic I had personally experienced (i.e. interests that conflict with the global optimum)

> Why is that your default assumption?

Because that's probably most textbooks.

Edit: Are people downvoting me because I'm actually wrong about textbooks, or is my answer unsatisfactory somehow?

I've always been partial to this TAM 212 online reference from UIUC. I don't know what the professor used to generate it but many of the diagrams are interactive and help build intuitive understanding of the material.


Whoa, some of those interactive tutorials are really impressive.

I developed some widgets for interactive books in primary and secondary education. We had different quiz widgets (multiple choice, etc) but also drag and drop stuff and other types of widgets. The people in editorial producing the books configured the widgets using custom HTML tags. It worked very well. As long as they knew HTML they could configure these widgets.

The problem is that anything that is easy to produce and configure with a set of options is going to be very limited.

It is certainly possible to create an environment for producing mechanical and physical simulations with visual tools but it would not be trivial to develop.

I suspect the optimum balance would still be somewhat technical. Maybe something on the level of a spreadsheet. It takes some specific knowledge to use effectively, but is still fundamentally a simple and intuitive tool.

This sort of interactivity would be perfect for Wikipedia.

There is a research area called "Empirical Modelling" which was trying to create these tools but not sure of the progress.


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