Future of the Textbook

One of my current interests is the area of Open Education Resources (OER). I’ve got Opening Up Education sitting on bookshelf within easy reach of my desk for when I have time spare to read it. Though of course I can also read it online, as the whole book is also available in PDF format for free from the MIT Press website.

Via Ewan McIntosh I found Seth Godin’s Textbook Rant on why he thinks the textbook industry has to die. As a fan of OER, I think he has some valid points. Indeed, one of my hopes is that I’ll find some time to produce some of my own notes online and make them available under a creative commons licence. If I find the time, that is. Doing so is not part of my job description despite Seth’s assertion that:

Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it’s part of their job, remember?)

No it isn’t Seth. Unless they are being paid to do so specifically as part of some OER project – of which there are at least an increasing amount. This UK project, for example, from JISC will “make the equivalent of 5,000 undergraduate modules of existing learning resources freely available online.

Academic textbooks are generally overpriced – something I won’t argue with. This is related, I think, to how university study is funded through very large loans in the US. Textbooks in the UK used to be significantly cheaper in the UK than in the US. Once Amazon and other online retailers arrived this discrepancy became quickly apparent – with the unfortunate effect that many textbook prices in the UK rose rather significantly so publishers could protect their US margins. (One book I have on a list of recommended texts went from £15 to £25 from one year to the next – a rise of 66%). While most textbook authors only make fairly modest amounts of money (despite Seth’s comments), I would agree with Seth that most academic publishers have been exploiting their audience and overcharging.

As to the value of a textbook, I must disagree. Not all textbooks are made equal, and perhaps marketing textbooks are just less equal than others. There are some very good (and many mediocre) computing textbooks. I have no reservations in recommending Michael Dawson’s “Beginning C++ Game Programming” to prospective and current students – even while I don’t require it as a text in any of my classes. It has a good narrative, excellent selection of content, strong examples, well thought out exercises… well I like it. And so did most of the buyers who took time to review the book on Amazon. While I don’t care too much which C++ book students have, I do feel quite strongly that students trying to learn C++ should try and get a decent C++ textbook and really use it to support their learning. There is far more to be learned that we can teach in the hours we have with students.

As for OpenGL programming, for my 3D graphics class I’m in something of a bind. There are a lot of very good books out there – but none that really work for my course, taking my students from where they start the module to where I hope they’ll be at the end. As a result, I recommend a few texts and ask students to take time to look at the various texts and choose one – in the knowledge that A is expensive and is heavy on the theory, but light on practical, B is cheaper and all practical but quite limited, C has good coverage but very limited tutorial style support, and so on. But I do think that a student that spends time using one of the books to support their own learning will benefit greatly – and I don’t have the time to write a book on the subject myself. Naturally, I also point students to a good range of free web-based resources.

Seth ends his rant with an update from the email he received:

Update: got more mail about this post than any other post ever. … and so far, more than 94% of the letters aggressively agree with me. …  I also heard from a handful of people who said that I was jealous, that the union won’t permit the system to change, that textbooks are really good, that professors are underpaid, that professors are too busy or (possibly and) that I’m delusional. I’ll note that not one of these letters came from a textbook user.

Seth’s blog doesn’t carry comments, but perhaps he should read the comments he got on Digg – which includes a number of comments from textbook users:

  • One user notes that some books are better than others: “The discussion that came out of Lencioni’s book was incredibly more significant than a text book. Plus it was cheap to buy and it was practical.
  • One user points to a list of text books with very positive Amazon reviews. “In nearly every discipline, there is a market-leading textbook that is trusted, learned from, and even treasured by the people who know and use it—i.e., students and teachers.
  • Another points out some of the positive features of textbooks and suggests that “Maybe rather than get rid of textbooks, we just advocate that they become a little more affordable.
  • And a couple of marketing profs ask whether Seth is willing for his own books to be given away free in class (to put up or shut up, basically): “We’re using Seth Godins book Permission Marketing as our textbook in my summer school class. Are you saying we can reprint this book for free or is it just chapters? Can you please post authorization for students to do this. Thanks this is great news to be able to now get your books for free.

If I ever do manage to produce my own OER course on Real Time 3D graphics, I’ll be sure to post some updates here. Sadly, it’ll be a while. Meantime, I’ll continue to point students to a range of textbooks, and recommending that they get at least one of them (or borrow it from the university library).

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