Friday, June 01, 2007


Ask the Administrator: Textbook Adoptions

A book rep writes:

I don't talk about work much in the blogosphere, but I work for a
major textbook wholesaler/retailer. One of my areas of responsibility
is a web application we built to help faculty research their textbooks
and pass their adoptions on to the bookstore. I've just been given
clearance to start a revision of the site, and I'm hoping you (and
your readers) might have some suggestions.

See, I hear about what our reps think are good ideas, and sometimes
the bookstore guys, but I rarely if ever hear from administrators,
secretaries, or faculty, and they're the ones actually using the site.

So, what do you hate most about the textbook adoption process?
What data do you look for when researching a book?
Anything you'd really, really like to see in a site like this?

The last time we did this, the best features were the result of user
feedback, but this time I'd like ideas from people who aren't using
the site, but might if we could design it to fit their needs. What do
you think?

Ooh, I should have written on this years ago.

I'll admit that I haven't scanned textbook websites recently, so I'll just open with a few comments on traits I've found endearing in textbooks I've used, then ask my wise and diverse readers to comment.

When I taught the intro to my discipline (a social science) at Proprietary U, I quickly realized that most of the available textbooks were horribly inappropriate. They were dry, visually complicated (someone declared at some point in the 90s that every page of every textbook should look like a GUI with about six tasks running simultaneously. Noooo...), intolerably long, and expensive. The students responded by buying used copies (or not buying at all), and then not reading. It was ugly.

Gradually, I learned better textbook-selection skills. I went with 'brief editions' whenever possible, paperbacks whenever possible, and shrink-wrapped 'freebies' not at all (since they exist mostly to short-circuit the used book market). But the real breakthrough came when I found one – an otherwise average text – that had multiple-choice chapter quizzes in the back of every student's book. When I found that, I seized on it, and told the students that the reading quizzes I gave each week would feature questions taken directly from the quizzes in the back of the book. So if they were smart – and I'd drop a 'hint, hint' here – they'd quiz themselves right after they read, so they wouldn't be ambushed. The students liked that, since they saw it as putting one over on me. I liked it, since they actually read – and re-read! -- since good quiz grades were suddenly enticingly attainable. Class discussions immediately improved, as did student attitudes and performance on exams.

I tried in vain to explain this to multiple book reps over the years. They always responded with something like “we have a student workbook that has quizzes, and we can shrink-wrap it!” No, no, no. If it isn't in the same physical volume as the reading itself, most students won't make the effort. (Admittedly, my discipline was well outside their majors. I'd imagine this objection wouldn't hold in, say, a competitive pre-med weedout course.) It has to be easy to use.

Another criterion – and this is so basic I'm almost embarrassed to include it – is font size. For reasons I'll never understand, certain academic publishers seem to think that teeny-tiny fonts are indicative of academic rigor. Nope. They're actually exclusionary, especially when you have a substantial proportion of adult students. Don't be afraid of big, reader-friendly print. If it forces you to be a little thoughtful about copy editing, all the better. (I've learned this lesson with in-class handouts, too. If it's something I've written, I never use anything smaller than 14 point. It actually helps.)

In my dealings with the math department, I've heard that a major distinction between different texts is the number of errors. I admit I found that fairly alarming, but there you go.

In foreign languages, it's a common practice to have a single textbook to encompass multiple semesters, so a single text might cover, say, the first four semesters of Spanish. I'm of divided mind on this. It's probably a good deal for students who make it through the entire sequence, but the sticker shock upfront is considerable. If some publisher were to experiment with smaller, cheaper breakout editions, the results would be interesting. I don't know if that has been tried.

There's a much broader issue about departments choosing common textbooks across sections of a given course. I've written on that before. Suffice to say, that one's case by case.

I'm sure that different disciplines have different needs, and that the needs of typical cc students may differ from the needs of students at a hypercompetitive liberal arts college. So I'll ask my various readers – if you had a book rep's ear, what would you suggest?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.

I've recently been browsing the H-M website in preparation for our upcoming search for a new calculus text for our largest enrollment calculus course (thousands of students per year). I was hoping to narrow down my list of books before the book rep sent me an overwhelming number of examination copies; I was hoping to only have to look through books that were likely candidates.

Unfortunately, I ended up in a tangled web. Some of the information I sought was on the part of the site designed for students, some on the part designed for faculty, and some was on a part hidden behind a password protected layer that I could only penetrate with the assistance of a book rep.

When I'm doing my initial online sorting, I want all the very basic information in one place.

I want to see the complete table of contents (chapter names and section names), a sample page of the text, a sample page from the exercises, a list of the ancillaries and supplements (links to other pages with more information are fine, but not pop-up windows), and easy-to-find ISBNs for each item.

From that information, I can ask my book rep to send the texts that meet my initial screening. An online "shopping cart" of sorts might be nice, to make it easier for my rep to send me the books.

If it was organized like a good online shopping site (like before it got complicated), all the better.

Once a decision has been made, we send it to our staff bookstore liason who deals with the details of communicating ISBNs and such to the bookstore.
I taught composition, and I found the best book sites (for either adoption or eventual use) were the ones that provided some extra service. Laying aside the types of composition texts (a long post in itself), all intro writers need a handbook. I chose the one with a spiral binding that lay open flat. They liked that.

I would also choose a text that was short on fluff and was, well, short--well--at least carryable. Little Brown had a good idea, then it exploded in page length.

I also appreciated the after-the-sale support of student access. I am all about a paperless writing class, so online grammar exercises (graded and scores sent to me in a format I can export easily into Excel) and handbook were nice. Few students write longhand anymore.

Saying that, I would have adopted an e-text, but the printed brick still rules.
Foreign language textbooks are incredibly expensive, but they are also very difficult to assemble. Although our introductory year will move to a new edition this year (it's for the two semesters of this year), which will mean no used copies, about 4 years go by without a new edition, so I'm happy with the balance between getting recent information and photos (yes, the Euro is completely integrated into the new text finally!!!) and the possibility of purchasing used copies next year.

I do feel a bit of a hit to my gut when I learn that the whole package of materials will cost about $150 new, but $75/semester for a text I know works well for student learning and with my method of teaching (and the fact that several paperbacks for a novel course get to $75 pretty fast) bring me to terms with the process.

Splitting this book into multiple editions might work, but it would restrict the ability of a multi-semester book to be used in multiple models (the two-semester or three-quarter rigorous year model vs. a three-semester, four- to five-quarter model) for language proficiency. But online options might let this become far more feasible, and I think students would go for it in the foreign language classroom, especially if there were options to easily print out certain necessary parts (so they don't print everything!).
*sigh* I'm in the midst of trying, yet again to find a text for my fall research class. It is a class students dislike because, well, it's research methods. They don't want to do stats. I refuse to make them pay over $100 for a book for a class they are already predisposed to dislike and which, in reality, most of them will never use again. I want a book that is affordable for the averages student. Give me the option to get the text alone without cd or workbook or a website we won't use and price it in the $50-$65 range.

I tend to sift through potential books on Amazon. That gives me access to multiple publishers at the same time and occasionally a useful consumer review. I really like the in-text search feature and would recommend all publishers enable that in Amazon and in Google Books.

I want a publisher website that makes it easy to order a desk copy. for review. Don't make me call a specific rep and play phone tag.
You know, when you go onto a publisher's website to look at books, the thing I notice most often is that it's really difficult to figure out how much the book costs. You have to put it into a shopping cart, or only the hard cover price is listed and so you have to go to Amazon to see whether you can figure out what the price might be there.... And then even that price won't necessarily match with the price that the bookstore charges. Price is a huge factor I consider when choosing textbooks. Just tell me how much the thing costs. Right up front. Like under the title before the link to the table of contents. I don't care how good the book is, I will not expect my intro-to-lit students (gen ed students) to pay $60 for an anthology.
Your correspondent should look at the discussion of this topic in some of the national on-line mags.

1) Price. The MSRP should be listed for each variant of the text, even if it is only an estimate.

2) Link to full table of contents (chapters and sections) since this is crucial for certain fields in math and science. At that point I can decide if I want to get a copy to review, since that is what I look at second when a review copy shows up in my mailbox.

4) Anticipated lifetime before the next edition and current value of dp/dt (page velocity in units of pages added per year).

5) Mass in kg and pounds.

About a month ago I blogged some other comments specific to physics under "books".
Hit submit too quickly:

3) Reading level. That is, the complexity measure (like Word gives) and estimated grade level for english part of the text.
A few things I would like:

* a list of available supplements that is easy to find and for new texts, ones that are planned (with projected availability dates). Also, let me reiterate: ISBNs for everything. All info in one place. I've had frustrating experiences similar to Rudbeckia regarding this sort of thing.

* as suggested by many others: on-line review copy requests (many publishers have this now). I almost never bother with letterhead requests now - too much trouble.

* clarity about which on-line supplements come with buying the book and which ones require extra $$

* sample problems from the text are essential. A sample chapter from the "early middle" of the book - like three or six.

* lab texts that are slim and $40 or under

* other supplemental texts, like "Applied X for Y" or "An X companion for Y" should be $30 or under if you would like us to adopt them.

* an easy way to request instructor resources once we have adopted the book. This is the one time I appreciate when reps are proactive.
I'm with those who mentioned price! I have found it ridiculously hard to discern price on publisher's websites, especially an estimated price if the new edition is not yet in print.

Navigation: it should not be hard to simply get to a list of books at the appropriate level. And once the book is adopted, the student support sections should be easy to get to (with our last intermediate textbook, I could either refer students to a super-long url or a paragraph worth of navigation explanations.)
Oh, I could go on about this for days, if not weeks! If your employer won't pony up for a proper usability test with faculty, you can still have some success with the following tweaks:

1) Make sure that subject searches or categories really pull together all the relevant titles. You wouldn't believe the number of times a major Western Civ text or supplement doesn't show up under that heading in a company's catalogue. Review these quarterly to make sure new titles are being properly tagged for all relevant categories.

2) Enable comparison search -- when I look for accomodations I use travelocity or comparable services which allow me to compare, say, all suites hotels with wireless internet. I should be able to compare all Western Civ titles with a brief edition on your site. Go over the issues people have raised -- does the text include quizzes, colour illustrations, whatever?

3) Sample chapters are great! I'd rather have a sample on site to see than another book I might well never want to see cluttering my bookshelf.

4) It might also be useful to have a way to save not so much a shopping cart, but a list of possible texts. I hate having to bookmark a dozen individual textbook listings while I hop all over the internet for a week or two, contemplating adoptions.

*time to next edition -- and can I tell you how much I HATE H-M for coming out with a new edition of texts every two years. As soon as the edition used last year becomes unavailable, I am sooo not ordering Bulliet.

*Also, and this means you, H-M, quizzes I can dump into Blackboard. These are worth more to me than any ancillaries you want to shrink wrap with the book

*Prices that make sense. The splits should not each be 3/4 the price of the overpriced full volumes

*Oh, H-M? maybe you could think about trying to get me to change to a title that competes with the one you've already got me to adopt

*Sample chapters

*a list of primary sources

*if you're going to have instructor ancillaries, like maps, then have them in a format that I can actually use by incorporating into my own PowerPoints. Because I don't want a packaged course.

*Oh -- I don't want a packaged course. I don't want "study questions" -- but questions that point to the main points in a given chapter? those are fine. Textbooks are there to provide the information and context for my classes. I don't want there to be a ton of interpretation, because I might not agree with it. What I DO want is a textbook that, even at freshman level, constantly brings up examples of historiographical debate.

As it happens, I'm not using a textbook in one of my courses, because as far as I can tell, Sinnigen and Boak is out of print. Plus, if I order textbooks, my students can't afford the primary stuff.
For physics, what I want is:

A copy of the book. Sample sections are all very well, but I want to feel its heft, and have some idea about consistency. I've been bitten too many times by books with great sample chapters but mediocre everywhere else.

A teachers manual with useful advice. Things like common student misconceptions, useful demonstrations (that aren't listed in the text), supply lists for labs, that kind of thing.

A solutions manual. Not only will it save me time, but it will also let me easily find mistakes in the answers in the book. And my students may want it to help them study. :-)

Supplementary resources like exam question banks are very nice. But I want them in both Mac and PC format, and ideally also in an open format so if the school changes operating systems (not something I control) I'm not hung out to dry.

Extra resources like handouts and overhead masters are nice, but I want them to be supplements, not just repeats of the textbook.
I would like price information as well. You can bet our students will tell us about the price -- you might as well be open about it.

My favorite philosophy texts are small vollumes, there is plenty there but the books themsleves are compact and thus students bring them to class.

I also like texts that split interpretation from original source materials.

It would be nice to have some on-line video resources and an assortment of relevant powerpoint slides I can choose to use.
If one assumes that one's students are putting in, say, 8 hours a week (I know, optimistic) on a given class, and that they could be making at least minimum wage, shortly $5.85, (I feel good about this assumption), and a semester is 20 weeks or so long, then a student is foregoing approximately $1000 in lost wages to take your class. And that doesn't even count tuition.

If your class is improved in quality by 10% by taking on a textbook which is $50 more, by the above logic, that's a pretty good deal.

I use that example in my econ class, and my students love it.
Everything above and also:

Examples from other adopters who choose the book as to how they used it in their course.
Provide a list of errata. Make the list easy to find and easy to use, both for faculty and students. Make it possible for me to learn _before_ adopting the book that Well Known Publisher apparently decided to save money (here on a graduate level polymer text) by skipping the copy editing.

Yes, shame on me for not recognizing the many errors when I was skimming the book in the library of another nearby university. Believe me, I had to pay the price during the semester:
* when I was deciding how many points to take off when students followed the blatantly incorrect mechanisms that were shown in the textbook
* when I was trying to explain why the homework problem really does have a reasonable answer, you just have to fix the formula in these 2 or 3 ways, so it agrees with the same formula listed in an earlier chapter
Carbon really does have 4 bonds, despite some of the figures...
General Chemistry texts have hit $170 and above. Need I say more.

BTW, the modern sites allow student testing and reporting.
I'm a pre-med and European history concentrator at Brown University. Those majors are not related but I feel they make me a "whole person" rather than a science geek devoid of writing skills.
I hate most of my text books. I have paid the bookstore my soul. I stopped reading my immunology text and used it as a doorstop (that's after not sleeping for a week attempting in vain to understand the mysteries the book contained.) I then bought a book online that looked simple. And then there was light.
I mean to say you ARE TOTALLY CORRECT. A text with simple pictures. Quizzes at the end of chapters. The student must be able to understand basics to grasp complex concepts in class. With understanding comes excitement. Excitement begets life long passion for a subject.
You seem to understand the book buying process...rock on Dean.
For mathematics textbooks, other than many of the other things mentioned above (easily found information--including prices and ISBNs, ease of navigation, etc), it would be nice to have a site, other than Amazon, where faculty and students can enter reviews for textbooks. I say "other than Amazon" because it's too easy to have trolls or "fanboys" enter reviews that are, essentially, outliers, making that signal to noise ratio drop quickly...

Reviews and methods of adopting a text by faculty would be good, along with students' perceptions of the usability of texts. And while I wouldn't want to force reviewers to divulge their names, I'd at least want to know what type of school they work at/go to (SLAC? R1? Large State U? CC?), as different institutions probably have different needs vis a vis a text for a given course.
I'm a text manager at a large Follett-managed bookstore and dealing with the online "eDoption" process is one of the most frustrating parts of my job.

Some suggestions based on my experience:
1) Don't force faculty/staff to enter lots of personal information when they register on the website. They hate that.
2) Faculty/staff often incorrectly submit adoptions with packages or editions that they didn't mean to request. Make it clear to faculty what the ISBN for the book by itself is--this would increase the bookstore's ability to get used books.
3) Prominently display the bookstore textbook manager's phone number and email address on every page, so that faculty know who to contact when they can't figure out the website.

Basically, you should assume that most of the website's users will have very very limited computer skills. And if your correspondent works for Follett, I would BEG him/her to work on streamlining the eDoption interface in CourseTracks.
Some very good ideas here.

Not all of them are easy to do, given all the different players, but they're pretty much all worth trying to do.

One wrinkle of a national resource offering textbook info is that the price of a given book can vary widely from campus to campus, depending on the margins set by the local bookstore. So the approximate price is often all they can really do, alas.
Mike -- if we know what the textbook company charges, we can then compare with the bookstore's prices. I know my campus bookstore has a 25% mark-up. And they are evil when it comes to used books!
why not get free and open content textbook.
you can modify them to make them fit
your needs.
For example, try

you can also can get many textbook
in many other places including the one
about the calculus.
why spend money and time for something that you donot need to?
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