Monday, April 09, 2007

Textbooks 101

By Bryan O'Keefe

The Boston Globe has an interesting story this morning about Harvard Deans asking faculty members to help reduce student expenditures on textbooks. The story claims that the Deans have asked professors to put more classroom materials online and to also decide earlier if they plan to use textbooks in subsequent semesters.

The whole issue of college textbooks is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I don’t always have a lot of sympathy for students who complain about the high costs of textbooks. I remember back in my undergrad days, I would hear people moan and groan and then run into them a couple nights later at a local watering hole, spending lots of money on things other than their Chemistry textbook. In some ways, textbook expenditures are just like anything purchase – you prioritize and budget accordingly. Some students unfortunately just choose to spend their money elsewhere.

But students are not completely to blame. I remember a few professors assigning books simply because they or another faculty member they were friends with wrote the textbook. Occasionally, the book would not even be used in class, which was positively outrageous. Any book that a professor asks a student to buy should at least be incorporated in some way into the class, or the professor should make it clear on day one that buying that textbook is really optional.

I have also heard from some professors on this issue and I understand their viewpoint too – namely that with the internet and Amazon.com, they simply do not get the type of royalties they used to. As a result, there is even greater pressure to come up with a new edition of a textbook in order to make money.

I think the easiest solution for all three groups is for college administrators to watch professors very carefully. If the professors really are using the textbooks and the material can not be found online, then the students should just buy the darn thing. But if professors are clearly abusing the textbook buying process, they should be held accountable too. I suppose that the new Harvard policy is a step in that direction, but it would be much better if the University and Deans looked at things on a more individual basis.

Better yet, why doesn’t an enterprising Harvard undergrad conduct surveys of students and figure out which professors really use their textbooks and which don’t? The results of the survey could be posted on a website, which would surely bring in advertising revenue once people started clicking on it to figure out if they really need to buy that new textbook. There has to be a goldmine for this type of information. Here’s hoping that somebody runs with this idea!

1 comment:

Parentalcation said...

Check out this story over at Casting Out Nines

Hidden alternatives to textbooks

"just had a chat with my colleague who will be teaching Discrete Structures this fall without a textbook. He had just gotten off the phone with the textbook rep from the publisher of the textbook he used the last time he taught the class. My colleague told the rep that he wasn’t going to use the book because, at $140 a copy, it was just too expensive, and he felt he could put together his own materials or put books on reserve in the library and be just as effective.

The rep countered by informing him about a web-based version of the text, which contains not only the complete contents of the text in electronic form but also some extras like additional worked-out examples. Students purchase an access code for this web site that is good for two years (in case they need to repeat the course); they pay by credit card and bypass the campus bookstore; and like I said, they get the entire contents of the textbook plus additional stuff. The cost for this? $15."