Tuesday, December 20, 2011


Free, If You Can Get It

Is a free textbook a good deal? It depends. Textbook costs are a real issue for students at many community colleges. For the intro to biology sequence, for example, the textbook and lab manual combine to cost over three hundred dollars. That’s pretty close to the tuition and fees for the course. For students who are paying their own way, or who work at minimum wage jobs to get through college, that’s real money. Multiply that by several courses over a few semesters, and the impact on, say, loan burdens is no small thing. Some universities are experimenting now with programs to encourage faculty to draw their course materials from free online resources. The idea is to help offset costs for students and, more cynically, to make tuition increases easier to swallow. After all, from a student’s perspective, total cost is the key issue. If a student saves a few hundred bucks on books, a slightly larger than usual tuition increase suddenly doesn’t seem so bad. If a college can shift money from publishers to itself, why not? The devil is in the details. Most of the examples I’ve seen rely on electronic resources. E-books, databases, and even selected websites (i.e. Khan Academy) can often fill in for paper textbooks. But they all require internet access on a device with a big enough screen. We can’t always assume that. We have computer labs on campus, but they’re frequently full. We have wifi on campus, more or less, but it still requires that the student provide the device. And when students are off campus, the cost of internet access falls on them. Given that students often do their reading and homework off campus, this is a major issue. Mobile broadband seems like one possible solution, but in these parts, the coverage is spotty and maddeningly inconsistent. (Annoyingly, only one carrier has good enough coverage here to be a viable option, and even that one is flawed.) Dead-tree books have the clear advantage of portability. A book that’s readable in the library is also readable in the cafeteria, on the bus, or at home, and at no additional cost. It doesn’t require the student to invest in infrastructure beyond a backpack and maybe a lamp. Electronic resources aren’t quite there yet, at least for commuter schools. (I suppose a residential college could make this work, given enough connectivity on campus. But that’s not my world.) Which means that the cost savings offered by electronic resources are predicated on an already-existing investment. If you already have, say, an ipad, and you already have wifi at home, then the savings are real. If you don’t, they aren’t. (ADA compliance remains an issue with cheaper delivery systems. I don’t know if the Nook is ADA compliant, but I’m told that the Kindle still isn’t. Ipads are, but they cost much more.) None of this strikes me as necessarily permanent. If mobile broadband coverage finally hits a critical level of ubiquity and reliability, then I could imagine some sort of leasing program for ipads with 3G (or, ideally, 4G) connectivity. But we aren’t there yet. For now, freebies are only free if you can afford them.

1. I'd appreciate an explanation of exactly how a hardcover book is more ADA compliant than a Kindle.

1a. The biggest compliance issue my students have is with some of our college sites and textbook-produced homework programs that will not run correctly (or at all) on some common devices. Flashy stuff is a particular problem, but not the only one. I also can't imagine how some of that is ADA compliant.

2. A college that offers free printing for things like reports and essays is in for a financial shock when students start printing out entire textbooks, one chapter at a time.

3. You are correct to be vague about any prediction of the near future when it concerns something that DID NOT EXIST AT ALL a mere 5 years ago.

4. If students are working in two places, on campus and at home, then mobile broadband is less important than broadband, period. Have you done a survey? I have seen home access to broadband double (from 50% to 99%) in just the past few years for my students. That 1% might be using a phone instead. Remember, these are students who literally can't live without Fb or multi-player games, or both, and often bundle it with their cable or dish TV access.
How about instead of "free textbooks", we see a trend towards the use of more cheap textbooks. I know that leaves the question of "where the hell are we going to get a cheap textbook for X?", but as an example, I find the Dover series of textbooks pretty decent, and they tend to be $10-20. The lowest level they go is Calculus, intro chem, etc. but still can be useful for people. Schaum's outlines are also nice (though instructors would have to provide their own problem sets for students).

If more textbook publishers saw a decent market for reasonably cheap, no-frills textbooks, wouldn't they respond? Would it be reasonable to ask instructors to try and use cheaper materials if they can?
why can't universities buy books themselves, and roll them into the price of tuition? if the U could buy 5 years worth of books from a publisher, they could probably get a good discount, and could simply hand them out on the first day of class. you could then provide the books "at cost", without markup from a local bookstore.

our local school system, with around 7k kids can do it. why can't the U?

also, the cost of an iPad is equivalent to about 1 semester's worth of books. if the ebooks are discounted enough, then the iPad is an economically better option, as it would be cheaper in the long run. if the price of an ebook is half of the hard back, then the ipad pays for itself in 2 semesters.
I second the Dover books comment; I teach math, and Dover books are about 20 dollars, often about 100 dollars (at least) less than the usual textbooks. Also, many free math textbooks are much cheaper to print out than buying a book; at 10 cents a page, a 200 page pdf is 20 dollars, still more than 100 dollars cheaper than a current textbook.

On a Kindle, the only thing that is zoomable is ASCII text. Figures, tables, charts, and equations are all low-res images. Even if you blow them up with an external, optical lens, they are very pixelated.
How free are these free texts? Are they CC licensed or something?

If the students had the option to print on demand (POD) them the costs could be pretty low, especially depending on book dimensions.
How free are these free texts? Are they CC licensed or something?

If the students had the option to print on demand (POD) them the costs could be pretty low, especially depending on book dimensions.
I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

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