Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Learning Lessons

My church will be giving scholarships to its graduating seniors this May. The checks won't be large, but they're a little bit more than a trip to Burger King. Our standard joke when receiving the applications is to say something like, "Well, at least it'll buy a textbook." The same joke about the same amount used to be made when I was the one filling out the applications, only then we said "textbooks." The problem of excessive textbook prices -- for books which might get used only in part -- is not new, nor is it getting better. Even the electronic and digital revolutions seem not to have been able to bring it down.

This item at Big Think notes how a phenomenon called "disruption" is sometimes required in order to fix broken systems or move them out of ruts they happen to be in. The disruption might create a new system, but it might also prompt an existing system to make needed changes.

A good historic example of a disruption is Martin Luther. Because of his protests against some pretty un-churchy activities, several new churches began, all distinct from the Roman Catholic church that dominated Western Europe. We call this the Reformation. But sometimes overlooked is the Roman Catholic response to Luther's criticisms. Church leadership found that even a heretic can be right twice a day and cleaned up several of the problems against which Luther had spoken in what's usually called the "Counter-Reformation." The German monk and his church door vandalism brought about many of the changes he said were needed, even though he himself found it necessary to move on from Rome's oversight.

As Robert Montenegro's article points out, Uber helped bring change to the taxi industry it sought to subvert. Once the cab companies didn't succeed in getting the ride-share operation run out of business, they wound up adopting some of its features in order to compete and stay viable.

Montenegro shows that this disruption has yet to reach the college textbook industry, to the dismay of student vertebrae and parental wallets everywhere. The Samuelson-Nordhaus Economics is in its 19th edition, published in 2009, weighs in at three and a half pounds and runs 744 pages. It's been revised, updated and reformatted, but it's the same book that's been used since 1948, and I would welcome examples of any other ways in which college in 2016 is the same as it was in 1948.

The problem, Montenegro says, is that while all of the information found in these topless towers of paper is readily available in free or less expensive versions elsewhere, it's not in a combined format. He says it will take someone preparing a great textbook, marketing it and getting it adopted by professors and thus used by students, for free. Once that happens, then it could be viewed on a subscription basis or even offered at no cost so students could access it. Traditional textbook publishers would have to adapt and that could bring their prices down and options up also.

But the burr under that saddle is the reality that textbook companies and other folks involved make a lot of money selling their wares, and have a lot of money invested in the current model. They're chary of kissing either sack of cash goodbye. While smaller schools and liberal arts colleges across the country are having trouble making ends meet, the major universities of our nation have learned one economic lesson well: How to turn your money into their money. And they seem unwilling to test other options anytime soon.


fillyjonk said...

There's been talk of having profs do the writing, apparently in their free time, in return for a hearty handshake and the warm knowledge that they have helped others.

I....don't think I could do that. I can't eat air, and I kind of need my free time to be free of work related concerns. Maybe I'm selfish (FWIW: I teach 4/4/2). I don't know. I do think that my time should be worth more than "nothing."

I will also say of the students I've polled, the vast majority prefer ink-and-paper textbooks over renting an accumulation of electrons (another "disruption" suggested: that we go to all electronic books, and they be "rentable" on the semester or yearly basis, after which, presumably, they evaporate, kind of like those old tapes on Mission: Impossible)

Friar said...

I've heard other possibilities, too -- that professors collect the material from various places and make the assemblage available for printing out, but that sounds like just a dram less work than creation from whole cloth.

My thought is that even if the free, open-source text is created the way Montenegro describes, it will have an uphill climb against established works. Who wants to be known as the K-Mart brand lit prof who uses some freebie instead of the Norton anthology?

I'm with those who prefer hardcopies myself, but as it costs more and more even to step foot on campus at some point something's going to break.

fillyjonk said...

That collection thing used to happen. It was called "Coursepacks" - the prof accumulated the readings he or she wanted, and one of the copy shops copied them and sold them to the students pretty much at-cost (plus a small profit for the copy shop). It was actually pretty brilliant for some of the advanced courses I took, much easier than telling students, "Here are eighty five articles I want you to read. Go search them out in the library"

Then the journal publishers decided they needed their cut, and demanded copyright fees for every article (which today can run up to $30 per article), which effectively killed coursepacks. Of course that could be done online, but still, some journal publishers (cough Springer cough) would demand their tributes. And I've heard of such things as profs getting C and D letters from publishers for having .pdf files of articles THEY wrote up on their campus webpages.....academic publishing is very broken and yet we continue to participate because we kind of have to, having no scholarly productivity is a way to have tenure revoked.

I think the whole copyright issue is why some are hinting profs can just take a summer off and write a textbook, gratis, for their university....