Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cure for the expense of college textbooks

College textbooks are ridiculously expensive. They are heavy to carry. They are old technology. They use up a lot of trees to print and a lot of energy to transport from printer to student. In the age of Kindle, why can't we have e-versions of them to download, or carry on a CD or flash drive? Why can't we make notes on them electronically?

It's the last part that frightens publishers. A flash drive or CD that contains a textbook could be passed from student to student, and illegal copying would be rampant, especially among college students who are usually starving and wouldn't think twice about passing up the expense of a textbook.

I was complaining to another instructor, Chuck Devange, about the subject of my last blog, and he offered a simple and elegant solution.

Once a textbook has been adopted, the college would charge a fee to every student in the class, and then the student would be allowed to download the text and put it on a CD or flash drive, or just keep it on his/her laptop.

The fee ought to be in the $1 to $35 range. After all, there are no more printing or shipping costs, or buy-back costs. There is no used book market to undercut sales of new texts.

Think of what texts could now contain:

History texts could contain actual news casts from early broadcasting years, or full sized samples of newspapers from whenever they were published. Math texts could contain animated graphs that change based on various parameters that the reader could adjust. Biology texts could contain video that would help identify things under the microscope. Geography texts could contain 360° panoramas of real places. Foreign language texts would, of course, have video dialog by native speakers instead of CD's or DVD's for an extra purchase.

Instructors would have the ability to make their own notes on the text and share them with their students. Texts would be searchable with a 'Find' command. No index would be necessary. Any word in any text could be connected to a dictionary.

Our college operates on quarters, rather than semesters, and we typically use half of a math text in a term. Electronic texts could easily be adjusted in size.

It is time for textbooks and publishers to come into the present. Bound paper is a thing of the past.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The college text book scam

Textbooks for college are ridiculously expensive.

Textbooks for the math courses I teach cost about $120, new. There can be add-on charges, such as a CD which shows many problems worked out, or access to online help from the company that published the text.

Why so breathtakingly expensive? It has to do with the used book market. If there are plenty of used books available then the publisher doesn't make much money selling new books. So, part of the price of your new text includes funds for the publisher to buy your used book back at the end of the term. A certain number of those used books will be recycled as paper. Some will find their way back to the college bookstore shelf, if the publisher doesn't have enough new copies to sell.

Every three years, a new edition of the text appears. Changes may be superficial, such as moving the review section from the front of the book to the back of the book, changing the order of some of the homework problems, changing the order of a few topics, or changing the size of the page, all causing enough changes so that us instructors must write a new assignment list based on the new text. The original author(s) may or may not have much to do with the new edition. They will likely participate in the first revision, especially if there are substantial changes, but with subsequent editions you'll see more and more names added to the list of authors, and in the end, the work was BASED on the original authors but may not look much like their material at all. Since the publisher will only supply a new text, or in some cases a text one edition previous, colleges have opportunities to re-adopt the new text, or move to other authors.

At the college level, we REALLY DISLIKE this process. Because we teach several levels of math, that adoption process happens nearly every year, generating work for us both with the examination of new texts and in developing new homework assignments. I've stopped including page numbers in my homework assignment lists, which I pass out at the beginning of the term. I only list section numbers anymore. But I still have to sit down with the old text and the new, to see if the problems are the same. Ninety-nine percent are identical, but they may be numbered differently.

If you use the college bookstore's buy-back program then you are contributing to the problem. Buy your books online at sites dedicated to re-selling books. Ebay's division,, allows folks to park a book online until it sells. This is different from their regular auctions in which items appear for about a week. Be careful, some of the books listed as 'New' list for MORE than the publisher/bookstore price. Buy used, and allow for 3-6 weeks delivery.

The textbook scam has another level.

A few years ago I bought several copies of a college-level math text for my homeschooled pre-calculus students. The book covered topics from 2nd year algebra through trigonometry. I bought copies from a few editions back, and because these could no longer be sold at college bookstores because of the situation described above, I got these copies from $0.75 (yes, that's 75 cents) to $5 each. That text is now a decade old, and we still use those copies. I loan them to students for the year. I have all of the supplemental materials, such as test banks and solutions manuals. The word problems are the only part that's really changed or needs updating. We don't talk much about the manufacture of VCR players any more, and the kind of vehicles manufactured has changed some. We get by!

That text was enormously better than the text we were using at the college for second-year algebra. I campaigned vigorously for its adoption, especially since students in that class (Math 99) could also use the text for Math 141 and 142, the pre-calculus sequence at our school. But what prevented its use had to do with a labeling problem associated with the college accreditation process. At our college, Math 99 is not considered college-level math. But other institutions DO label it 'college level', and it's usually called Math 100 or 110. For accreditation purposes, coursework that is UNDER the college level must use a book labeled 'Intermediate Algebra'. Coursework AT college level should use a book labeled 'College Algebra'.

For awhile, the pages in those books with different labels were IDENTICAL if they were from the same author/publisher. To our dismay, at some point in the last decade, the books labeled 'Intermediate Algebra' got dumbed down. The reading level diminished, using simpler words. While that may not be a bad thing, please understand that terminology among authors of math books is already not very standard. This made it worse. In addition, explanations (mathematicians call these 'proofs') were simply left out, leaving the student to take for granted what the instructor was telling them.

So, not only is the textbook of lesser quality, you have to buy more of them.

There ARE publishers out there that use mostly the same material from year to year, but they publish the book in a softcover format for about 40% of new price from other publishers. After a term or two of use, the book is falling apart, so there simply is not much used book market for it. Makes sense to me.

Textbooks are heavy. Are they ever going to go to CD or flash drive, where you just pop it in your laptop or Kindle and read it? Publishers don't like this, because the book can too easily be shared or put online for anyone to download. That would cut into their profits dramatically. For the sake of the student, making electronic notes on your text would be an excellent educational advantage. The ONLY reason why colleges don't demand this from textbook companies is because most instructors aren't tech-savvy enough to make the notes to share with students, and so don't know to ask for (demand!) this capability.

All that having been said, allow me to endorse a high school math text that is likely the ONLY high school text book still in publication since 1979. Harold Jacob's "Elementary Algebra" is still the best-written book on the market for first-year algebra, and it's still in its first edition. There have been a few corrections, but very, very few. The book is carefully and meticulously thought out and presented. There are some cultural references that are pretty old, older than the cultural repertoire of most of the math instructors out there today. The order and presentation of the material was different than most high school texts at the time. Mr. Jacobs led the way to a better path through first-year algebra, and since then most college textbooks have come around to his way of thinking. The homework is just math, and guess what? Math hasn't changed! I have suggestions for a new edition, but it evidently isn't forthcoming. So I supplement in a few places. This book will never be used on the college level because it isn't labeled for college use. Too bad! It's made me a much better math instructor. Mr. Jacobs has wisely kept control of the material so that subsequent editions aren't ruined, and I know that the publisher is still selling many new copies of this text and is making money on it. If they weren't, they would not be printing new copies.

(I'm not getting anything for this endorsement. The book was first brought to my attention by a student who wished to be tutored from it. I began using it with my privately taught math classes after that, and purchased all the copies I own, or they were donated to me by parents whose students were finished with algebra.)

So there you have it, why textbooks are so expensive, why you have to buy so many of them, and why you have to haul them around. I think textbooks publishers should invest in authors like Harold Jacobs, and in delivery methods that don't inflict printing and shipping charges, which HAS to be a huge chunk of the textbook cost. Subsequent editions ought to be available for a download price, like updated software. Paradigms must shift, if we are to have better texts.