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Sunday reading: Editorial on high textbook prices

August 17, 2008, 11:33 am

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette has this article today by Karen Francisco which is an excellent, if troubling, survey of the problem of rising textbook costs and the things people are doing to offset those costs. I was interviewed by Ms. Francisco last week for this article, and I am happy to say that unlike in my previous newspaper interview experience, she got my comments exactly right (and asked if my name and position could appear in the interview). Here’s what I had to say, although you should read the whole thing:

Robert Talbert, an associate professor of mathematics and computing science at Indiana’s Franklin College, is one of several hundred U.S. college faculty members who have signed on to PIRG’s online pledge to help control textbook costs. He’s passionate about the issue.

“Many of my students are either first-generation college students, students from middle- to lower-income families, or both. They are struggling to afford college as it is – often having to work off campus, which then affects their class performance – and it really pains me to see textbook companies charge more and more for a less and less useful product,” he said in an e-mail.

Talbert said he’s bothered not just by the cost, but by the quality of the books, which he said are often “poorly written, chaotically organized and full of so many irrelevant graphical elements and sidebars” that the information students need is difficult to find. If he can avoid it, Talbert doesn’t require a textbook or directs his students to an inexpensive one.

“In my abstract algebra course last fall, I used no textbook but rather homemade course notes and a handful of helpful Web sites,” he wrote.

Of course this is all old news to Casting Out Nines readers!

Later, after discussing Rice University’s adoption of an open source textbook for their introductory statistics class, she went on to quote me about the potential for open source textbooks:

“Imagine having a calculus textbook, the contributors to which are some of the best calculus professors in practice today, and which includes not only text material but also links to Web sites, embedded video, interactive applets for visual/kinesthetic learners, and user-contributed problem sets – for free,” he wrote.

“There’s a stigma against such things now, just as there is a continuing stigma against Wikipedia in academia (because academicians have a hard time accepting the legitimacy of something that is not peer-reviewed), but I think once students start learning and getting engaged with material through these things, that stigma will go away quickly,” he wrote.

Actually I think the stigma isn’t so much against Wikipedia itself as it is the notion of putting Wikipedia on the same level of authority as, say, a peer-reviewed monograph or a published encyclopedia. But a lot of academic types let their stigma start there and pretty soon the entire concept of an open-source informational source is stigmatized. That’s just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Again, go read the whole article, especially for the stories from students about what they are made to buy at a high price that can be had elsewhere for next to nothing, comparatively. It’s shocking.

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