November 30, 2015

What students spend on textbooks and how it affects open textbooks

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Avoid bookstore line-ups - adopt an online, open textbook Image:  The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Avoid bookstore line-ups – adopt an online, open textbook
Image: The Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Hill, P. (2015) Bad Data Can Lead To Bad Policy: College students don’t spend $1,200+ on textbooks, e-Literate, November 8

Caulfield, M. (2015) Asking What Students Spend on Textbooks Is the Wrong Question, Hapgood, November 9

Just wanted to draw your attention to two really interesting and useful blog posts about the cost of textbooks.

First thanks to Phil Hill for correcting what I and many other have been saying: that students are spending more than $1,000 a year on textbooks. It turns out that what students are actually spending is around $530 – $640 (all figures in this post are in U.S. dollars and refer to U.S. post-secondary education.) Furthermore, student spending on textbooks has actually declined (slightly) over the last few years (probably as a result of increasing tuition fees – something has to give).

Mike Caulfield however points out that the actual cost of recommended textbooks is over $1,000 a year (or more accurately, between $968 and $1221, depending on the mix of rental and newly purchased books), and that this is the figure that counts, because if students are spending less, then they are putting their studies at risk by not using recommended texts.

For instance, a report by consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG found that the cost of textbooks has jumped 82% since 2002. As a result, 65% of about 2,000 students say they have opted out of buying (or renting) a required textbook because of the price. According to the survey, 94% of the students who had skipped buying textbooks believed it could hurt their performance in class. Furthermore, 48% of the students said that they had altered which classes they take due to textbook costs, either taking fewer classes or different classes.

More importantly, students and significantly their families do not look at the cost of textbooks in isolation. They also take into account tuition fees and the cost of living, especially if they are studying away from home. So they are likely to consider what they are expected to spend on textbooks rather than what they will actually spend when deciding on post-secondary education. The high cost of textbooks is just another factor that acts as a deterrent for many low income families.

Whether you take the actual expenditure of around $600 a year  per student or the required spending of $1,220, having open textbooks available not only results in very real savings for students, but also will have a more important psychological effect in encouraging some students and parents to consider post-secondary education who might not do so otherwise. Getting the methodology of costing textbooks right is important if we are to measure the success of open textbooks, but whichever way you look at it, open textbooks are the right way to go.

Lastly, if you are encouraging your students to become digitally literate, I suggest that you ask them to read the two posts, which, as well as dealing with an issue in which your students will have a major interest, are paragons of well-researched writing, and above all courteous and respectful in their differences.

Do we learn less from e-books?

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Szalavitz, M. (2012) Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read? Time Healthland, March 14

This excellent article looks at research done at the University of Leicester, and also draws on experience from a number of people, that suggests that ‘physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory……This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for e-text books or computerized courseware, however. Different media have different strengths.’


As someone who has recently switched to the Kobo e-reader for reading novels, I found this article really resonated with me. It seems that ‘deep’ remembering is very strongly associated with spatial cues and a wider visual context than just the written words. You don’t get that broader visual context with simple e-readers such as Kobo. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy using my Kobo – it’s great when travelling, especially on planes (except that I often have to wait between taxiing and after take-off, until the seat belt signs come on, as it’s an electrical device.) However, I frequently lose the plot!

First, it must be acknowledged that much more research needs to be done on whether printed texts are better for ‘deep’ memory. However, this needs to be done before the printed textbook becomes a dodo. More likely, we need to look more carefully at the interface of electronic readers, and pay much more attention as to the design of digital text for different kinds of appliances. In this context, I suspect iPads rule, and Blackberry’s and other mobile phones are poor devices for ‘deep’ knowing.

Thanks to Jim Ellis’s excellent eLC Digest No. 93 for directing me to this.

Can education afford the iPad?

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 Extract: Click on the graphic to see the full graphic has produced another interesting graphic comparing the costs of iPads to textbooks. It argues that textbooks are 41 per cent cheaper than iPads.

This is an interesting comparison, but it only makes sense if the iPad is seen merely as a replacement for the textbook, which it is not. It has many other features that could be used in a school, college or university. However, the overall point is a good one. iPads are too expensive at the moment for every student to have one.

Doing similar calculations though for a simple e-book reader such as the Kindle ($129 in Canada) or the Kobo Touch ($100) does bring the price down to a point where it would make sense to replace textbooks with e-readers – provided that the textbooks are available as e-books and at a reasonable price, which they are not yet. (But see Rice University develops free online textbooks)

Currently with e-books we are in a classic technology development phase, where the costs are too high for widespread take-up, and the necessary concomitant changes in an industry are not yet in place. However, several things will happen to change this.

  • First, the iPad or something like it (iPad 3? Android x?) will become cheaper and will have more functions, gradually replacing the use of laptops in most educational institutions; using multi-functional tablets for interactive, multimedia textbooks will become one application of many. Time horizon (for widespread adoption): 3-5 years
  • ‘specialized’ low-cost tablets will be compete with the iPad and other high-end tablets, and will provide an economical way to access e-textbooks. Time horizon: now for the hardware, but cheap e-textbooks are not currently available, so see below
  • new forms of open publishing will drive down the cost of textbooks, whether in print or electronic form, to the point where printed textbooks are really coffee-table books for specific purposes. Time horizon: 3 years. (In other words, we will go back to a pre-print age of just one copy in the library.)
  • eventually, textbooks as we know them (a single, comprehensive source for a whole course) will disappear altogether, to be replaced with modular collections of multi-media digital material that can be searched and combined at will by both teachers and learners. (These might even be called ‘open educational resources’.) Time horizon: 10 years. The problem is not the technology, which is available now, but the need for educators to understand the value proposition.

So we are not there yet, but e-textbooks are coming, probably within 3-5 years for general use. But they won’t be with us for long.

Online search versus $168 textbook

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Photo of textbook

Schaffhauser, D. (2011) Student Research: Can Googling Replace $168 Intro to Psych Textbook? Campus Technology, February 16

11 University of Cincinnati seniors in the psychology program presented at an Educause event a comparison of the content of traditional college texts, one of which costs $168, to content they found for free on the Web. They found the online material to be as good as the material in the textbook. However, it should be noted that they were helped to search online by an instructor.

Nevertheless, given that the students were developing core skills of how to search, analyse and evaluate information relevant for their course, as well as comprehend the content, the learning outcomes are likely to be even greater.

More research needs to be done on this, but anything that satisfactorily avoids the ridiculous costs of introductory textbooks is to be welcomed.

A gradual move to open-source textbooks

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Rosenhall, L. (2010) Internet, cost spur textbook revolt Sacramento Bee, December 6

For those of you who don’t get the Sacramento Bee newspaper (you dont?!), this is an excellent article on the gradual move to open-source textbooks, and it also contains a short segment about ChemWiki. Lots of useful facts in this article about costs of textbooks.