The Cost of Textbooks

This is the first of a group of “back-to-school” topics for the month of August.

There have been many articles written in the past few weeks about the new federal, and in some cases state, laws that have a role in shaping the world of textbooks.

• “$200 Textbook vs. Free. You Do the Math.” in the NYTimes speaks with Scott G. McNealy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, about the “need” for free online textbooks.

• “Taming the Cost of College Textbooks” at notes (as do many others) that the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 came into play on July 1 this year, requiring more disclosure from textbook publishers. It quotes the oft-repeated figure of undergrads spending about $700/year on textbooks, and provides a number of suggestions for getting text materials for less.

• “Textbook law aimed at helping lower cost of higher education” discusses the “College Textbook Affordability, Accountability, and Accessibility Act,” introduced in the state of Pennsylvania by Senator Andy Dinniman, which makes greater demands that the federal law. In a sidebar, it is clarified that while the federal law only covers institutions receiving federal student aid or federal funding, the state bill would extend to all schools.

Scholars at Risk Network, hosted at New York University, says that the Pennsylvania bill would require faculty members to select “the least expensive, educationally sound textbooks,” would restrict academic freedom.

What is one to make of all this?

1. The figures for college textbooks—not only the $700/year figure, but—in at least one place—the $4000 over the course of an undergraduate career, do not take into account that many students sell many, if not all, of their textbooks, recouping much of the money.

2. They also don’t take into account that when students elect to keep a textbook, it may signals something about the lasting value of the book. Just as what goes on in the classroom in an investment for a lifetime, a textbook may be as well. Textbooks are not just the required calculus text that you’re never going to look at again. The “textbook” might be a Mamet play, the work of a contemporary philosopher, a well-regarded analysis of history or foreign policy, a dictionary of a foreign language—any of which might be consulted periodically through a lifetime and passed down as an inheritance.

3. People are crying out for differentiated instruction and attention to learning styles in classrooms, with no recognition that a key component of this happens (or at least can happen) through textbooks and accompanying material.

4. Choosing the “least expensive, educationally sound textbook” may require choosing the copy the cover of which will fall off before the end of the semester. Books are material objects: there are some that are made more skillfully, and some that are cheaply constructed: you’re not just buying what’s on the page.

5. Trying to have all educational materials available for free has some key problems:

a) Not all the teaching in a classroom is done by the teacher. Some is done by/through materials. Creating those materials is a specialized job, done by people with special training, talents, and insights into the learning process. The people who create those materials are educators—even though they are sometimes not currently in the classroom. Proposing that what’s free is what should be used either ignores the value of what has been prepared by educational professionals who create classroom materials or assumes that everything that is available is of equal value. This is no more the case than it is true that every educator in the classroom is equally qualified and effective.

b) Yes, there is a culture of open source and free material. But, as anyone who has ever researched it (and I have) can tell you, a good bit of what is free is of poor quality, which may mean that it includes misinformation, bad grammar, or was created with no concept of the learner’s needs. Besides that, trying to find free materials is an issue because—if one really cares about value—one has to find it and vet every single bit of it. This requires an enormous investment of time.

c) Anybody want to take a class in 21st century fiction or poetry or history or biography or orchestral music or philosophy? Oops – these course can’t be offered because the materials with which one could teach them are copyright. By the time they’re in the public domain, it may be the next century. Oh well …

d) Try any of these experiments: read an online textbook for four hours; take notes on an online textbook; mark an online textbook as you would a print book—underlining, highlighting, margin notes, sticky notes. You’ll find that it’s more difficult and tiring to read on-line; taking notes on any but a very large monitor (larger than what is available on laptops) is likely to be time-consuming and frustrating as you have to switch between programs constantly; marking the text is also tedious, and therefore not likely to be done. Sticky notes, which quickly can get you to key pages can be roughly imitated by keeping a list of page numbers and typing them in, one at a time—pretty tedious, too. Now consider this process for a student with any kind of learning disability…

Is material that the student just looks at and doesn’t interact with understood and retained as well? “There is growing evidence that note-taking combined with critical thinking facilitates retention and applications of the information.” (“Note-Taking: What Do We Know About The Benefits?” In short, there are personal and educational effects to trying to do everything online, but they’re not always included in the discussion.

6. Teachers are not automatons: they have different approaches and presentation styles, which may integrate more effectively or more poorly with various textbooks. Some textbooks may be “educationally sound” without being apt to a particular setting.

So these are some things to think about before taking a stance on textbooks.