Teaching Tools (again): Balancing Price, Need and Accessibility.

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.)

4 Comments on “Teaching Tools (again): Balancing Price, Need and Accessibility.”

  1. Darlena says:

    I’m interested to see the future of textbooks. I think it would have been so much easier to lug my iPad to the library or wherever to study than all the textbooks I needed, plus a laptop. I know they aren’t perfect, but I definitely think they can get better. Maybe students could rent the textbook on their device for the semester? That might make it even cheaper in the long run.


    • nickfalkner says:

      There are many models that would work but they require the textbook producers to agree to losing a little bit of control and there are some quite complex financial issues in the mix as well.

      I value the role of author and producer but I think we’ve seen models in other spaces where both of these parties can take a fair share of the profits, while still giving the consumer reasonable pricing and control.

      It’ll be interesting to see what iBooks 2.0 does to the mix. Thanks for the comment!


  2. I’ve been thinking about why students don’t buy textbooks, and to me, a key reason may be pedagogical, rather than financial or technical. I think often we don’t tie the material in textbooks explicitly into our courses, so the students don’t really see the relevance of the material except for “further reading” or advanced understanding. For many students, this is not their expectation from a course.

    I think that some of this might be due to our increased propensity for using PPT and similar tools. By providing outlines, or PPT slide printouts for our lectures, I think we encourage the view that that is all you need to understand a course – particularly, when you don’t explicitly link in the resource material. Maybe we should be looking at highlighting simple ways that lecturers can link resources into PPT, or into teaching structures?

    This is why I’m becoming more of a fan of the tools that support your own textbook creation, and new views on e-textbooks. Not because they are digital necessarily, but because it facilitates educators in creating custom books of resources, where you only include the chapters/papers that are relevant, and you can also intersperse them with your custom materials (lecture notes, etc).


  3. Alex H says:

    I was a serial non-buyer of textbooks. At first I was simply short of money and decided to see if I could get by with library copies. But I soon figured out that, to be blunt, the majority of undergraduate texts simply aren’t good enough to be worth spending money on. Later I started purchasing books that I liked, as opposed to those that were set as texts.

    A large part of the problem is bloat. By the fifth edition, more than half the book us usually “added” material–things shoved in to cater for a wider audience, or to make the book look more contemporary. Any narrative thread or structured argument that the author may have had in mind is obscured. The result isn’t a book that someone can enjoy reading.

    I remember teaching a course which used the seventh edition of a certain textbook. The third edition had been quite good, but the seventh contained so much filler material that is seemed to cause more confusion than it dispelled. I mentioned this to the course coordinator, who said that they were aware of better books, but changing the course materials to refer to them was too much work. Essentially, it had become a form of vendor lock-in.

    I still treasure my copies of Kreyszig–a set text for many mathematics courses–and Spivak–a book which should have been but wasn’t set for first- and second-year calculus. These are inspiring, challenging and coherent books. But they are the exception rather than the rule.


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