How Professors Would Fix Textbooks

University professors share their frustration with textbooks and what they think should be done to remedy the situation.

by / July 3, 2012 0

Paper textbooks have been declared dead for a while. But digital textbooks, e-books and e-texts have yet to gain a major foothold in the college market.

Universities such as Indiana University have been working on bringing textbook costs down for a while. And individual professors have some ideas about how to make textbooks less expensive, but more relevant to students.

In interviews, several current and former university professors sound off on the problems with textbooks of all forms and share ways to address the problem.


The problem with textbooks

As students complain that textbooks drain their wallet, professors are feeling their pain. And the concerns about cost aren't limited to paper tomes that quickly go out of date.

"I think textbooks are just too darn expensive, and I think that digital textbooks or e-textbooks are too darn expensive," said Stephan Brady, former faculty member with Penn State and the Air Force Institute of Technology and current founder and CEO of Supply Chain Innovations Today, a supply chain consulting firm for companies and organizations. 

One reason why paper textbooks cost so much is because publishers need to recover their costs of producing new books in the first or second semester, Brady said. That's because the books end up in the used book market after that time, where publishers don't get a cut. And digital textbooks have kept a similar high-priced model, he said, which encourages students to break the encryption on them or stick with paper books because they can sell them back.

At a cost of $240 to $260 for a new accounting book, students in Thomas Buttross' class in the School of Business at Penn State Harrisburg pay a high price for their textbook, said Buttross, an associate professor of accounting.

Additionally, an online homework manager that comes with a competing textbook from McGraw-Hill isn't available for the McGraw-Hill textbook that Buttross uses. If it was available, students would have to pay an additional $12 a semester to access homework online with a new textbook purchase, or $59 for access from a used textbook.

As the transition continues from print to digital, people still like to hold a book in their hand, as Heather Lutz has found out. At the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, the assistant professor of operations and supply chain management has given several sections of her class the opportunity to buy a book physically or digitally.

Most of them still buy the physical textbook because their eyes get tired from reading on the screen, Lutz said. And if they do buy the digital one, they print most it's pages anyway.

"We've tried to go to do things more online, like do homework online with the program offered by their textbook, and they don't like it at all," Lutz said. 

Along with still being expensive, digital textbooks can't always be downloaded to mobile devices such as the Galaxy tablet, the iPad or the Kindle, Buttross said. And videos, of course, can't be printed.

"Part of the problem is that the digital isn't always available across platforms right now, and it needs to be," Buttross said.

How to fix the problem

A number of people and companies are working on the textbook problem, including Apple. With Apple's iBook Author and iBooks 2 applications announced in January, the technology company initially is trying to go after the K-12 market. After all, math and history textbooks could reach millions of high school students versus hundreds of thousands in higher education, Buttross said.

But unlike Apple's closed system, Buttross' former Penn State colleague Brady is planning a system that will be more flexible, open and able to work on multiple platforms.

By using the HTML5 online content language, Brady hopes to give students cheaper instructional books that will give them all their material in one place. And the material will be updated in near real time.

This idea actually came out of an assignment Brady gave students five years ago at Penn State. He had students interview local small businesses on how they did inventory, workflow and employee scheduling.

Brady plans to embed video tutorials and interviews with business leaders for what he calls a "learning book" on logistics and supply chain management. If his group finds enough funding, the book would be updated with real-time information and would sell for $15 or $20.

Brady's team of six includes a university dean from a research university, a person skilled in graphics work, another person working in the Web design space and a few other business people to advise them on business direction. After about two years, the team expects to break even. And without going through reprinting, the subsequent years could produce increasing levels of profit.

Outside the classroom, small business people who need help with managing inventory, supply chain and logistics could quickly go through the book on their tablet. 

Students in Lutz's class would appreciate having more updated information in their books, she said. Sometimes the data in the textbooks she uses seems old to them. And she admitted that some of the videos she uses in class are almost embarrassing because they're so old, even though they do teach concepts well.

"If there was a way to have something where you're getting these quality videos or interviews, something up to date, that would be really beneficial for the students to see," Lutz said. "I think anything we can do so they can see how it's applied in multiple ways is beneficial."

Brady's idea is a good one, Buttross said, though Brady isn't the only one working on something like this. He would actually like to see Brady's learning book have 40 modules so that he can pick the 16 he wants to use in his class. And then when he picks them and puts them in order, it would create a book in a table of contents, similar to what Wikipedia allows professors to do with its content.

Ideally, textbooks should be as flexible as possible, Buttross said.

"I think that in general you shouldn't sell books," Buttross said. "You should sell modules and let professors put together their own books."

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.