Discussions of Textbooks Hit the Mainstream Media

There has been an increasing focus on the cost of textbooks in the mainstream media this year, and I don’t think it is the case that I’m just becoming more sensitized to it. Take for example the editorial from the Washington Post on February 7th. The second paragraph succinctly describes the issues being debated most often:

There are several reasons that textbooks are so costly. For one, even though there have been no major advances in fields such as calculus and elementary physics in decades or even centuries, publishers still churn out new editions of textbooks on these subjects every three or four years. The changes are typically superficial, but they prevent students from being able to purchase used, older editions. Publishers also frequently bundle unwanted additional materials such as CD-ROMs and study guides with textbooks. Professors rarely assign these extra materials, which drive up costs, and students often cannot sell the books back to bookstores once the shrink-wrap has been removed. Publishers can get away with these shenanigans because there’s a fundamental disconnect in the textbook marketplace: The people paying for the books (the students) are not the ones choosing them (the teachers).

The editorial goes on to suggest that what is needed is regulation “to ensure that both students and professors are able to make informed choices” — regulation of the kind proposed in House bill H.R. 4137 (covered on DLTJ earlier).

The New York Times has a posting on their editorial blog on April 10th that follows up on the federal legislation. It says that the House and Senate versions are currently being reconciled in a conference committee, and goes on to summaries the key points of the House-proposed legislation.

The public radio program Marketplace had a feature on April 15th that covered textbooks. It also had a statement that I hadn’t heard in other stories:

[Executive director of Higher Education for the American Association of Publishers Bruce] Hildebrand says it costs a lot to produce multi-color glossy pages and the other materials teachers want, like lecture notes, PowerPoint slides and exam questions. In effect, students are paying higher prices to make life easier for their professors. They usually don’t even know what the prices are.

While I’ve heard the claim before that professor’s don’t know the true costs of textbooks and have a hard time finding that information, this is the first time I’ve heard that “students are paying higher prices to make life easier for their professors.” I’m not necessarily buying that. In fact, there was a comment from a listener who teaches biology that was broadcast on yesterday’s show refuting that. The listener says “That is completely ridiculous. Even if I were to use only the slides that they provide, it would still take me hours per lecture to write a lecture the first time.”

Then there was news on April 16th about the Public Interest Research Group announcement that they had reach 1,000 signatures on an online petition to make textbooks affordable including the use of open textbooks, when available. The trade periodical Inside Higher Ed was one that published an article about the PIRG’s accomplishment. AAP’s Bruce Hildebrand praised the effort (that would ironically reduce traditional publisher revenue), saying “any faculty member or group that is willing to make that level of commitment to provide a free textbook, I applaud them.” He then goes on to caution that content creators are assuming the role of publisher, along with all of the duties to keep the content updated and integrate it into instructional systems. This article also lists several examples of how Open Educational Resources is gaining ground, including a description of a management school professor who stopped using traditional textbooks 10 years ago.

Lots of activity here; it is definitely worth keeping an eye on.

The text was modified to update a link from http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/04/15/textbook_costs/ to http://www.marketplace.org/topics/life/textbook-costs-getting-hard-cover on November 13th, 2012.

(This post was updated on 13-Nov-2012.)