Teaching Tools (again): Balancing Price, Need and Accessibility.Posted: March 30, 2012
I’ve spoken before on open source and teaching tools but I’ve been reviewing some interesting data on textbook purchasing. As some of you may know, book purchases are dropping in many areas because students feel that they don’t need to (or can’t afford to) buy the text. Some of the price burden of textbooks is the size, printing and shipping costs associated, so eBooks, which can be and often are, cheaper should be addressing this problem.
Is that our experience? Well, we’re still collecting data but, anecdotally, no. Despite eBooks being substantially cheaper, students aren’t buying them in any greater numbers. (Early indications are that it may actually be less.)
Price is always going to be an issue. 60-70% of a large number is still a large number (to a student).
Need is an issue – do students need the book as a text or a reference? Will they be able to get by on lecture notes? How is the course structured? There are important equity issues associated with forcing a student to buy a book as you don’t know what they’ve had to give up to do that, and the resale market for secondhand books is not what it once was.
But one of the big concerns of my students is accessibility. They are well aware that buying an electronic book may give it to them in a very constrained form – a book that can only be read on one machine and may not survive upgrades, a book that may not have a useful search mechanism, a book where you can’t easily highlight the text. Worse, it may be a book that, sometime in the future, just stops working and can never be read again.
Yes, publishing companies are pouring millions of dollars into solving this problem but books are special in a very important way. Books enable knowledge transfer, they don’t own or restrict the knowledge transfer. When you produce a physical book, people can expend effort to do what they like. Make a house out of it, read it, re-index it, tear out the pages and put them together in print density order. None of this is possible with an eBook unless someone lets you. (Ok, you can build a house but it will use your laptop or tablet.)
I can’t help thinking that most of the effort seems to be going into providing the experience that publishing companies want us to have, in terms of usage, ownership and access – focusing on controlling us rather than enabling us. Perhaps this is the point we should address first?
(If you haven’t read my post on Hal Abelson’s talk, you might want to get to that after this.He talks a lot about the problems with the walled garden and his terminology,including the very useful term generative, is a very interesting read.)