Textbooks 2.0: An Oxymoron?

Apr 26, 2008 by

I’ve been following a conversation on one of my ListServs for textbook authors about strategies for “beating” the used book market while keeping textbooks affordable. There were two recent pieces in the New York Times on the subject of costly textbooks: That Textbook Costs How Much? $200 (NYT, April 10, 2008) and Knowledge is Priceless but Textbooks Are Not (NYT, August 30, 2007).

There has also been a lot of buzz about pending legislation in Congress (House Bill H.R. 4137) about making the true cost of college available to students, parents, and the public (including the price of the textbook materials).

The website Chegg.com (featured in a January article in Businessweek) provides a service, like Craigslist, for students to buy and sell books from each other without a middleman.

In 2005, Henry Roediger wrote an excellent article Why are Textbooks So Expensive?, where he points out that the true “parasites” of the industry are the used book sellers:

They are true parasites, deriving profits with no investment (and no value added to the product) while damaging their hosts. The issue here is similar to that in the movie and recording industries for pirated products that are sold very cheaply, denying the companies and the artists their profits. One major dissimilarity in these cases is that pirated movies and music are illegal whereas the used textbook market is legal.

It is interesting to debate strategies for lowering textbook costs while still providing authors (who do most of the hard work) and publishers (who organize, print, and distribute the original materials) thier due. And while some of the proposals I’ve heard are interesting, most do not get at the basic paradigm shift in information accessibility.

Today, we can all access high-quality materials for many subjects on the Internet for free. Information is perceived to be a “free” resource. While there are some benefits of texts (peer-reviewed, checked for accuracy, a consistent voice to the whole set of materials), we are probably only a year or two away (if that) from having at least one complete text, in every subject, authored by someone from academia, available online for free. If you don’t believe me, you should visit Connexions, Textbook Revolution, or Online Science and Math Textbooks, or Online Mathematics Textbooks.

There was a time when books were so difficult to obtain that very few people could explore knowledge through the written word. Today, the pendulum has swung completely in the opposite direction. The thinking by many students (and parents) is … WHY should we pay for books when the information is freely available?

That’s what academic authors should be thinking about.

If you’re going to put your heart and soul into developing a textbook, what benefit are you going to provide in these products that someone else won’t just provide free on the Internet? You can’t compete with “free” unless there is a clear learning benefit to the materials that you provide.

Our Board of Trustees recently asked the faculty association to look into using all open-access materials for our classes to cut down on the book costs to the students. I don’t think that materials on the Internet (or our students) are quite ready for it … yet. But the free materials get closer to approximating textbook-quality every day, and there are the benefits of interactive materials on the Internet (which we cannot provide in a printed book).

Academic authorship of texts might be about to become a pro-bono venture – something to count towards tenure, but not something profitable. If authors want to be paid for their work, they will need to begin thinking about what kind of cohesive learning material package they can provide that will NOT be available on the Internet for free. Materials might be accessible only through subscriptions. Learning materials might look an awful lot like video games.

There are over 100 virtual worlds (like Teen Second Life and WebKinz) for kids under the age of 18 right now. These kids are growing up in a world that is so completely different from the one that I grew up in (and I’m only 33), that I can’t imagine what higher education will look like once they get done with us. Do we seriously think that these kids, who will have done the majority of their learning through games and game-like activities, will power down at college to learn from textbooks?

We have, for the first time, open access to information in a way that has never before been possible. Students have, for the first time, access to learning that is more engaging than lecture and texts. Well, actually, before there were books, learning was probably much more engaging – oral lessons and practical experience.

If you have already published a large body of textbook material, I would start thinking about how you will move your hard-written work into the next generation of learning materials (call it Textbooks 2.0, although calling the material textbooks might be an oxymoron). The world is changing, as will our place in it. Adapt or become extinct.

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7 Comments

  1. Cameron Flint

    Yes, the cost of textbooks is atrocious: I spent $882.40 for books over the last two semesters, and that’s not out of the ordinary by any means. But even if they all were available for free online, there’s just something about holding a printed book my hands — something that captures and holds my attention longer than staring at a screen — that (I think) is worth paying for. I appreciate online resources as a reference, but I would be more than reluctant to switch to an all-online system.

    Now at the current price, of course, I might be more than tempted, but if publishers would at least price our textbooks reasonably then I personally wouldn’t have a problem purchasing them. They require time and money to author, edit, and publish like every other good or service the market provides, and I’m willing to pay if the price is… reasonable.

    All us students are asking for is just a little ethics in academic marketing, that’s all. “Free” and “open-source” are all the rage — and that’s great! — but not everything can be free. I think textbook publishers would do well and still remain competitive in providing discounts to students (hey, we get them for practically everything else).

    I appreciate text books, and I like “free,” but then again College is an investment. I think the best solution here is a compromise.

  2. Maria H. Andersen

    I think the tricky thing is that the most profitable members of the “textbook chain” are the used-book resellers. They are the ones making the most money off of the lifecycle of a single textbook.

    It’s not the publishers or the authors.

    If students want real change, they need to demand that resellers stop marking up texts 25-40% when they sell them to you. Then, as the profitable resellers get out of the market, the prices of texts may come back down to earth again.

    I wonder how many students have stood in line to sell books back without realizing that if they all just started buying and selling books from each other in that line, they would all come away with more money in their pockets.

  3. Derek

    I think it’s worth asking what students do with the textbooks we ask them to purchase for our courses. I bet in many math classes, students don’t actually read their textbooks–they just work on the exercises they’re assigned for homework, maybe looking back in the section to find an example or two if they get stuck on a problem. Would it make more sense just to give our students sets of exercises instead of textbooks?

    If we did, then when students need any additional resources, they could turn to the Internet, which is their first response anyway when they need information. Then it would become our job to help them find, evaluate, and utilize information they find online. These information literacy skills are only becoming more important for today’s students.

    (I’m ignoring the fact that you can apparently find the instruction versions of solutions manuals online pretty easily these days. Assigning your students the even problems in the textbook as homework problems might be a thing of the past soon…)

    Of course, this isn’t the only way students can interact with their textbook. I have my students read their textbooks before class so that class time becomes their second exposure to material. That way I can, in the words of Harvard physics professor Eric Mazur, spend more class time on the “assimilation” of information instead of the “transmission” of information. This pedagogical model requires a useful, readable, and hopefully interesting textbook of the traditional kind.

    Even in this case, however, if there was a freely available, quality online “textbook” my students could read / explore / interact with before class, I would probably go with that. I think my students would prefer to save their $100.

  4. Robert

    “These kids are growing up in a world that is so completely different from the one that I grew up in (and I’m only 33), that I can’t imagine what higher education will look like once they get done with us. Do we seriously think that these kids, who will have done the majority of their learning through games and game-like activities, will power down at college to learn from textbooks?”

    Keep in mind that just because SecondLife and the like are prominently featured in the media and blogs doesn’t mean that a lot of people are actually using them. The actual percentage of the under-18 demographic that is using technology in any significant way or to any significant extent — beyond just texting on a cell phone — is currently unknown, and if you talk to many teachers is not very great. Certainly my students are nowhere close to the mythical “digital native” stereotype. So you have to be careful about generalizing to the entire population here.

    And as for books, I certainly *hope* that students in the future will “power down” to learn from textbooks. Books are not going away, and the best textbooks model clarity and structure, especially the classics (see my recent post about the Great Books of mathematics). I don’t have anything against textbooks per se, just ones that are hugely expensive and don’t offer much value for the investment — and especially ones that come with bundled crap that nobody needs or uses.

    I think the idea is to get the best course materials into the hands of students with as little expense incurred as possible. Sometimes that’s accomplished just by linking to online materials; sometimes not, and print resources are the best way to go. Just making a move away from print because of some untested ideas about digital natives seems to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

  5. Maria H. Andersen

    I think Robert is 100% right when he says that the “digital natives” do not know as much about technology as they are given credit for. I find that my crowd of 18-22 year-olds has not heard of Second Life, but many of them play games like WoW and Sims pretty extensively (which are in virtual worlds).

    These students, for the most part, know how to get on the Internet and find information, they know how to use social network sites (MySpace, FaceBook), they text and IM each other to a maddening extent.

    But, nobody has taught them how to do anything USEFUL with technology. They come to our college without any understanding of how to organize their notes or sources with software. They don’t know how to use collaborative tools for working on projects with others (Wikis, Google Docs, etc.)

    I think that this is the topic for a whole other post. What should education (and math instructors in particular) be teaching these students about using technology to be productive?

    There is a LOT of speculation about the textbooks of the future (especially amonsgst those of us who are authoring them).

    I’ve found a few articles over the weekend that follow up on this with some more data … I’ll try to get those posted later in the week.

    Just to be clear – I am NOT advocating that we get rid of printed texts. I am NOT saying that I like the idea of getting rid of printed texts. I am just saying that pressure from students, parents, administrators, and the federal government may FORCE us to use free resources for classes. I don’t like that.

    If an author and publisher have worked hard to write and publish a textbook, then they deserve fair compensation. If new books are only sold in the first year of a book cycle, then the author and publisher must make their fair compensation off of one book sale for the approximately six students who will go on to use the book.

    That is why textbooks cost so much when they are new.

  6. Derek

    There was a really interesting presentation at EDUCAUSE 2007 by Julie Evans of Project Tomorrow in which results from a national survey of K-12 student technology use were shared. One of the results was that 60-75% (depending on age category) of students use technology to play games outside of school. This gets to the idea that students might not know Second Life, but they’re used to engaging in computer and video games outside of school. Have you seen some of the online multiplayer games that elementary school students play? (There’s one about penguins, I’ve heard…) When those students hit college, they’re going to be very different than today’s college students.

    To that end, one of the other interesting results was that the real “digital natives” are in grade school right now. In 1996, when our current first-year undergrads were in 2nd grade, only 14% of their classrooms had Internet connectivity. In 2002, 92% of classrooms had Internet connectivity. We’ll see those students in our freshman courses in 2014.

  7. Chegg Support Team Member

    We are so happy you stumbled upon Chegg. We are ready for the 2008-2009 school year and are serving 2,100 plus schools this year.
    Order soon as August 19th is the biggest textbook ordering day. As always, we would love to know your feedback once you have tried the service.

    Chegg Support Team Member

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