Commentary

Say Goodbye To The Traditional Textbook

I remember donating plasma to help pay for my college textbooks. I'm pretty sure that wouldn't come close to covering it these days. According to U.S. PIRG, students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks.

Students are tired of being strong-armed at the bookstore, and plenty of companies are helping to do something about it. The unnecessary rise in costs for textbooks and the traditionally slow- moving textbook industry are being tested by alternative models for textbook distribution and consumption. No one is totally sure what method will stick, but the ones that do are likely to make wheelbarrows full of money and relieve a lot of pressure for students and parents.

Here are some companies that are experimenting with new ways to deliver textbook and other educational content and helping to lower the cost of higher education:

Chegg (www.chegg.com): Allows students to rent their book for class at a discount of more that 50% and have it delivered to their door. Students can rent books for the semester and ship them back for free when they are done. There is also an option for students to extend their rental period or buy the book should they choose to do so. Oh, and Chegg plants a tree for every book rented.

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CourseSmart (www.coursesmart.com): Offers digital versions of traditional textbooks from some of the major publishers in the industry such as: McGraw Hill, Pearson, and Wiley. These materials are viewable online or can be downloaded. The book prices are reduced significantly from the printed versions found in the campus bookstore. Students using this service tout the joy of not having to lug around heavy books for class anymore.

Textbook Media (www.textbookmedia.com): Works directly with publishers and authors to offer their textbooks and study guides online through a web-based book reader. The books are adopted by professors and assigned to their students for the semester. The books are offered free to students through sponsorships (think PBS underwriting) from national brands that want to help lower the cost of education. Paid upgrades with no advertising are also available. (In full disclosure, Campus Media works closely with this company to create custom sponsorships for national brands.)

Aplia (www.aplia.com): A software brand owned by one of the country's largest textbook publishers (Cengage) has put its money behind engaging students through online homework assignments, problem sets, tutorials, and interactive market experiences to complement textbook content. Paid access (about $60) to these online exercises provides instant feedback to the student and professors to better understand what is resonating with students and what isn't. The real-world applications help students deepen their understanding of concepts covered in the textbook.

Flat World Knowledge (www.flatworldknowledge.com): An open-source textbook provider that provides online textbooks in a reader to students free of charge. Professors are able to customize the book by rearranging chapters, removing or adding text, and other customization. Students pay for premium PDF upgrades for printing, audio files and interactive web quizzes. Earlier this year, Flat World Knowledge received $8 million in Series A funding to help grow its offerings.

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7 comments about "Say Goodbye To The Traditional Textbook ".
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  1. Bob Batchelor from Cultural Historian and Writer, July 10, 2009 at 1:14 p.m.

    Hi Jason,

    Despite the high cost of textbooks, the underlying challenge is really that students (in general) refuse to read. So, professors/teachers are willing to do just about anything to get them to do so.

    Personally, I adopted a looseleaf version of the text (along with electronic access) this summer that cost about 1/2 of a traditional text. I thought that if it didn't look like a textbook and we studied the chapters non-sequentially, then perhaps the students would read. I was wrong. If the reading cannot be scanned in 40 seconds online, then it does not get read.

    I wrote an essay based on my frustration and raised some points about possible ramifications:
    http://tiny.cc/I82zS

    Some of these sites might succeed, but the whole endeavor is worthless if students are just buying access and then never opening the texts.

  2. Robert Sawyer, July 10, 2009 at 2:01 p.m.

    As someone who just graduated with a Masters degree in Media Studies from The New School I can personally attest to the punishing prices of text books. However, as a 50-year-old student with a moderately successful career as a Creative Director behind me, I was able to buy the books with little discomfort. However most of my peers did struggle with the costs of books.

    Saying this, I found that many of my peers who read material online, or copied who copied sections off line, did not read with the attention, nor did they retain much of the information they received. Although this may be a generational issue, online reading encourages speed, not comprehension.

    I found the benefits the book offers far exceed those of the online transmission of knowledge. The tangible object allows/encourages not only the traditional benefit of mobility, but the ease to go back and reread and sometimes reread again, a practice which serious comprehension often involves.Toward this end, Chegg is a excellent model, as are others that actually put an actual book in student's hands.

    In closing, I found the level of discourse inferior, wherever my professors either excerpted sections or chapters from a book—since that was all the students tended to read.

    In the final analysis I think we must find ways to finance the purchase of books, because the book itself, as a metaphor, illustrates the difficult work of thinking and expressing ideas. The possession of bits and pieces isn't particularly valuable and ultimately will serve neither the student nor the culture well.

  3. Marcia Chocinsky from Fahlgren Advertising, July 10, 2009 at 3:26 p.m.

    Loved the last one! At flatworld the teacher can "customize the book by rearranging chapters, removing or adding text, and other customization." Can you say re-writing history, anyone!! I'd rather see the teacher profess their views as part of the classroom discourse & yes I realize the books were written by another person. But you will have one persons thoughts masquerading as another persons.

    and also I agree with the writer that online encourages speed but not comprehension.

  4. Stephen Shearin from ionBurst Media, July 10, 2009 at 5:05 p.m.

    Oh how I remember the huge expense followed by the low buy back due to a one word change forcing an 'updated version.'
    I like the listed options, and it is certainly time for a change, but I didn't see Kindle there. I think I heard they are trialing text books on a few campuses next year. What a great possibility.

  5. Tom Larsen from GreenSmart, July 10, 2009 at 8:08 p.m.

    Our Company supplies non-books to the college bookstore industry and this is about as big a topic as exists. The publishing industry has a huge stake. The life cycle of college books is shorter than ever - to meet the publishers needs for revenues and to maintain the competitive advantage of publication enhancement with CDs etc. Costs are high because investment is high and climbing.

    Is it necessary? Who knows, but, if professors recommend the books, who want to have the latest bells and whistles to entice student reading, the student buys them. It's not a lowest price wins proposition, so the more competition, the higher the prices go from development costs.

    The loser is the students. When no competitor can stop the development cycle and subsequent cost increases and the professors unwittingly participate, it's a tough cycle to break.

  6. Maryanne Conlin from RedRopes Digital/4GreenPs, July 11, 2009 at 7:19 a.m.

    I teach at several universities that use e-books and, after a rough transition period, I find that students love them.

    The big bonus is not necessarily not having to lug around heavy books but the web enabled functions that allow search, etc.

  7. James Murphy from CompleteCurriculum.com, July 11, 2009 at 2:55 p.m.

    its called evolution, we can't carry out with the environmental problem caused by forest destruction to create books, we have million of computers that bookstore industry may use to enhance education <a href="http://www.completecurriculum.com"> digital textbooks </a> isn't the future anymore, its the present.

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