Why digital supplements drive high-priced textbook adoption

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The WSJ reports that:

“The average student at a private four-year college spent $1,213 on textbooks, course materials and other supplies for the 2011-12 academic year, a 3% increase from the previous year, according to the College Board, a nonprofit that tracks college costs. Students at public schools forked over $1,168, also up 3%. And some college experts expect costs to rise again this fall, as many books add expensive extras such as Web-based tutorials and supplements that can each cost $50 or more. “

According to the Twenty Million Mind Foundation, an organization devoted to the “creation, sharing, and proliferation of more effective and affordable educational content by leveraging disruptive technologies, open educational resources, and new models for collaboration,” the increasing cost of textbooks is an important factor in both rising student debt and high dropout rates. Between 1986 and 204 textbook prices rose at twice the rate of inflation (186%), meaning that at some community colleges textbook prices can account for up to 75% of total student costs.

I don’t teach big introductory classes any longer, and some days I miss the thrill of teaching in front of a couple of hundred students at a time. So I’m no longer responsible for choosing which introductory sociology textbook that my students will buy. But, if I were to get back into the “Sociology 101″ business, would the price of the textbook enter in my thinking in a bigger way than it did in all those years of teaching?

A typical textbook that I’d use would be Richard Schaefer’s Sociology. According to the McGraw-Hill site the book retails for $178. You can get it on Amazon for $129.86 (print copy), or $103.24 for the digital Kindle version. This is the sort of textbook that I was requiring for my large intro classes.

At the time I was choosing which textbook to assign I don’t think that the student cost was forefront in my mind. Rather, the decision to adopt a textbook was driven largely by the following factors:

Quality of Supplemental Digital Materials: I always looked for high quality digital materials (such as animations, charts, tables, short videos etc. that I could use to improve both lectures and the student experience in the learning management system. These materials needed to be correlated and complementary to the text and the test banks that come with the textbook. Correlated digital materials helped me reinforce the concepts we covered in the lectures, online exercises and the readings.

Digital Student Study Materials:
Again, I looked for online student study materials that were matched to the textbook, and which were also referenced by the bundled assessments. My thinking was that the digital study guides, practice quizzes, and online exercises supplemented and reinforced the material covered in the textbook.

High quality digital materials both made my job easier as a professor (which you appreciate in large classes), as well as serving to enhance student learning (at least that is what I believed).

Faculty are rational actors when it comes to textbook choice. We will assign textbooks that meet our objectives.

What needs to happen, it seems, is some consciousness raising about both the detrimental impact of high student textbook costs and more knowledge about the availability of high quality substitutes.

But until the open source textbook providers and the new all-digital textbooks publishers also provide faculty with digital supplementary materials, materials that now come standard with traditional textbooks, we will not see a large movement towards assigning the lower-priced textbook options.

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