Thursday, November 09, 2006

More on Electronic Textbooks

Yesterday's post was my 500th. When I started, I had no idea what I was doing and what would be involved. Now updating this blog is just another part of my daily routine--like brushing my teeth and taking my vitamins. And today is Post #501.

I got a surprising number of emails from people wanting to discuss the post from yesterday about schools replacing textbooks with laptops. I was a little take aback by the number of people who hated the idea of laptops for students. Most of those who were opposed felt that, given the fragility of laptops, bulk purchases were a waste of taxpayers' money since students would drop, break and spill stuff on them as well as losing them.

I will admit that I was a little surprised that schools are looking at giving the students laptops instead of e-book reader devices, which would be much cheaper. I suspect that the plan is for students to do more than just read. With laptops, they could do research on the Internet, write papers and do projects.

H said, "I wonder if the school's have to partner with one publisher in order to offer ebooks across the entire school."

I only know how it works in Texas. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) manages the textbook adoption process as a part of developing the statewide curriculum. Texas has something called Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). All school districts are expected to provide their students with the essential knowledge and skills established by the TEA. Schools can submit requests for textbooks to be reviewed for possible use. Each year a different subject matter (science, math, etc) is reviewed. Two lists are developed: the conforming list (approved books) and the non-conforming list (the book provides at least half the information expected to be learned in the subject). School districts order from these two lists.

The books are bought in bulk at the state level and then distributed to the various school districts. A variety of publishers are involved.

I don't see why e-books would be any different than regular textbooks. The State contracts with a number of publishers for hardback textbooks, and I would expect them to order e-books from a variety of publishers, too.

I suspect the people who will be the most opposed to e-books will be college and university professors. Many professors use their own books as the required text for their classes. College textbooks are extremely costly. Students often try to purchase used books to save money. However, some professors choose to "update" their textbook every couple of years so that the incoming students are unable to buy the textbooks secondhand. Instead, they are forced to buy the latest edition new, providing a nice steady stream of income for the professors.

E-books will end this dynamic. Updating textbooks will be a simple matter. This alone makes me look forward to the day when e-books replace textbooks.

6 comments:

Laura Vivanco said...

I suspect the people who will be the most opposed to e-books will be college and university professors. Many professors use their own books as the required text for their classes. College textbooks are extremely costly. Students often try to purchase used books to save money. However, some professors choose to "update" their textbook every couple of years so that the incoming students are unable to buy the textbooks secondhand. Instead, they are forced to buy the latest edition new, providing a nice steady stream of income for the professors.

I'm in the UK and studied arts subjects and I only once had to buy a textbook written by a member of the academic staff. My husband studied science, and he doesn't remember having to buy textbooks by members of staff. Although staff might have a copy of their books/articles in the library and put them on the reading list, they wouldn't usually be items one would have to purchase.

I don't know how this compares to the situation in the US, though. It sounds, from what you say, as though it's rather different.

One thing I do know is that academic writing generally brings in little or no profit at all for the authors. I have never been paid for writing any of my articles or my book. My husband's writing part of what will be a textbook, and while he and his co-authors may get a small amount via royalties, it's not likely to be much. My book is rather expensive to buy, as are many other academic books, and that's probably because of the relatively tiny print-runs, but that doesn't mean that the authors are making much, if any, profit (though some authors, on very well-known and widely used textbooks may do).

When it comes to updating, that depends a lot on the subject. I'd imagine that some subjects change much more rapidly than others. Scientific textbooks will probably need updated more frequently than, say, medieval history textbooks. But updating a book can be a lot of work. There may be some cases where it's just a matter of slotting in a new name and a couple of paragraphs, but it could involve re-writes on huge sections if they're in fast-moving areas of science or politics. The textbook I had to buy, on the European Community, for example, was soon out of date because new treaties were signed, new member states joined, and the EC was renamed the European Union. An update of that book would not have been a simple matter. It would have required a lot of time, effort and specialist knowledge.

Maya said...

Laura: Thank you so much for adding the British perspective to this discussion. I appreciate the time and trouble you took.

My own experience of graduate school was that at least a third of my textbooks were written by my professors. A few of them took the steps to have material copied from their books and made the photocopies available to students at greatly reduced fees from the cost of buying the textbook itself. The rest did not.

Estimates are that the average American student will spend more than $4,000 in textbooks during four years of college. The situation is so problematic that the U.S. Congress held hearings in 2004 to study the matter.

The chairman of the Association of American Publishers testified: "In almost all cases, the independent decision-maker in selecting instructional material for a specific course is the individual professor . . . College professors and instructors are in most cases the textbook authors as well."

Publishers admitting during the hearings that they often sell the same textbook cheaper overseas than they do in this country because of "market" conditions.

Senator Charles Schumer of New York issued a press release on 2/8/04 indicating the need to "guard against professors who take advantage of students by assigning books they wrote. One of college students' biggest complaints about paying for college textbooks is when they are forced by a professor to purchase a book written by that professor or one of his colleagues."

Again, thank you for your comments.

Regards,

Maya

Laura Vivanco said...

That sounds outrageous, Maya. How much of these textbooks do the students actually need to read? Most of the time we were given bibliographies with a mixture of books and journal articles. Journal articles are often available online nowadays, because university libraries have subscriptions to online journals. That makes it easy for the students to get hold of them for free. If a particular book was a set text, it was usually put in the 'Short Loan' section, and you could only take it out for 3 hours at a time. Photocopied articles were sometimes also put in this section. If it's a big class, there will often be multiple copies of books in short loan. We did have to buy copies of some books e.g. copies of the novels we were studying, or textbooks that we'd use throughout the whole semester/for all the years we'd be taking that subject (e.g. grammar text-book), but I'm sure we didn't spend anything like the amount you're describing. For the languages it was novels and maybe one grammar book, and when I took theology I think I bought one introduction to theology textbook. Also, we don't take as many subjects per year as you do in the US, I think, so that would tend to reduce the number of books bought too. I'm not sure if I've got that right, but I have the impression that in the US someone starting an undergraduate degree has to take a lot of different modules/subjects. Is that right? I only had 3 subjects in my first year. I can see advantages and disadvantages in both systems, but I'd imagine that if students take fewer subjects they'd tend to have to buy fewer set texts.

When I think about bibliographies carefully, it seems to me that a bibliography that's made up so heavily of one person's work doesn't give students a wide range of information sources. We were expected to read widely so that we could be exposed to a range of opinions (it would be different in, say, maths, I'm sure, but that's how it was in arts subjects). Also, the work written by our lecturers tended to be very specialised, and so in many cases wouldn't have been appropriate to set as a general text-book, but might be something a student would dip into if she/he was writing on a particular essay topic.

Susan said...

There are a few kids at my son's bus stop whose backpacks are so heavy, they teeter as they get up and down the bus steps.

If we can save our children the future orthopedic problems (and let some of them learn at their own pace) by using laptops and online texts, I'm all for it.

That said, where'd I put the log-in for my son's online math book?

Maya said...

Laura: Having said what I said, there are many professors who are as outraged as the students are by the high price of textbooks and who try to find ways to help mediate the costs.

There have been several reports by public interest groups that focus on practices by the publishing industry that inflate prices.

Maya said...

Susan: I believe the recommendations are that a child should carry no more than 10% to 15% of his own weight in books. Unfortunately, many kids are carrying 35% on their backs. This is extremely dangerous for their young bones.