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Hidden alternatives to textbooks

April 9, 2007, 9:47 am

I 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.

So… students can either pay $140 for a hardcover copy of the text, or they can pay roughly 1/10 of that and get, well, the exact same thing. $140…$15. Let’s think about that. [*microsecond-long pause*] Yes, I’ll take the $15 version please.

This makes me wonder just how many other textbooks that are in use now have electronic counterparts that are far less expensive. More profs need to start doing what my colleague did — letting textbook publishers know, via conversations with the reps, that the price of textbooks is simply too great and that they can, and will, use cheap or free resources to replace a textbook with the confidence that doing so won’t hurt the quality of the course (and indeed might improve it).

Textbook adoption is not your typical free-market interaction. The actual consumer of the textbook — the student — is not the one making the decision whether or not to purchase it. Profs (pr departments, committees, etc.), who usually have no financial stake in textbook selection, make those decisions — and cost doesn’t typically enter into it. This means that publishers can pretty much set whatever price they want, because the ones paying for the books are not the ones making the choices.

But once profs start declaring their concern about book prices en masse, as well as declaring their intentions to seek out cheap/free alternatives, the publishing companies might start getting the message, and we might begin to see the market take over, lowering prices and improving quality. For any professor who is in the selection process right now, I encourage you do make these declarations the next time the textbook rep calls.

There’s also a question in this episode that I’ve been thinking about — what’s the difference between using a cheap or free textbook in a class, and simply not using one at all? If you have a cheap/free book available and it’s at least pretty good, should you use it? The answer to that question isn’t trivial, and I’ll pick that up in a later posting.

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