Sunday, January 22, 2012

Cracks in the Ivory Tower

Rackets don't always deal with illicit substances, gambling, loan-sharking or sex. Some are visible, accepted, legal and equally outrageous. Textbooks are a racket. College textbooks are Mafia-grade racketeering.

A typical college textbook is over a hundred dollars. Some are well over that number. The American government book we use in my community college lists for $185. The Texas state government book is a bargain, listed at $115.

Take a look at most of the books in the average student backpack and you will notice that they are 10th, 12th, or 15th edition. That's not a coincidence or an accident. It's an intentional plot. If you don't update your books, then students simply sell them to the next class and your market shrinks. Simply edit in a new paragraph from the most recent year or the last election and call it a new edition. Now the current student has got a $150 paperweight that can't be resold.

The argument is that the cost is so high because of the instructional supplementals that faculty get. There will be a handbook of lesson plans, there might be a CD of PowerPoint presentations usually cobbled together by a graduate student with no editing skills, and there inevitably will be a test question bank also built by a teaching assistant with no training in creation of evaluation tools.

Bottom line is that the student takes a big hit in the wallet and the shoulders that must bear the heavy backpack.

Last semester I stumbled upon a start-up company that was offering e-books for all levels of education from K-12 through university and grad school. The free app came in PC and Mac flavors as well as Android and iOS. Most major textbook publishers were on board with their catalogs and instructors who were willing to evaluate the system got a coupon for $200 worth of free textbooks. Cost of books was roughly half of what a dead-tree textbook sold for.

Kno.com Offers a New Paradigm for Textbooks

The books are accessible through all of our devices. They are full color and fully illustrated. They are searchable, indexed, and bookmarkable. You can highlight and clip relevant info to fit your study style. Organize by your classes and semesters then simply carry your iPad around and throw the bulky backpack in the trunk.

The real event took place last week. Apple-fanatics are always rumoring the new iPhone or latest iteration of the iPad or release of an operating system update. That didn't happen, but what did happen was almost as earthshaking. Apple attacked textbooks like a Marine amphibious landing storming the beach with a full blown air assault softening the marketplace in advance.

First they announced a new addition to iBooks, the iTunes connected e-book reader which will specialize in textbooks. If you've got the current operating system on you iPad, Pod, Phone, you'll simply find an iTextbooks section when you plug into iTunes. Current library is limited, but with the leverage of Apple you can be certain that the choices will expand rapidly. It only took about a month after iNewstand showed up in iOS 5 before you could get literally hundreds of magazines and newspapers.

Pricing, if it sticks to the current offering levels is going to be bargain basement. Most of the high school texts available are in the $15 range and some large-format, heavily-illustrated offerings like premium cookbooks still come in under $50.

Joined at the hip with iTextbooks is what potentially is a free global university. It's called iTunes U, and offers schools and faculty the chance to offer multi-media online courses through the iPad. I looked at it yesterday and found a list of categories of courses. Science, math, social studies, literature, humanities, etc. are all available. Political science is under the social studies area and there were already more than a hundred courses ranging from American government to international relations, law of armed conflict, and more. Schools offering the courses span the gamut from community colleges to state universities to powerhouses like Harvard and Oxford.

The key to free enterprise entrepreneurship is finding a need and meeting it with innovation. Steve Jobs was legendary in his ability to do that with out-of-the-box thinking. This textbook and learning system initiative is definitely on the same track.

6 comments:

juvat said...

Here's an interesting counter to your post, Ed. I think his salient points are first, you are limited to Apple's EBook format and second, Apple is dictating curricula. An open format, could negate the negatives associated with both.
However, in general, I agree with the concept of EBooks, although I still haven't figured out how to stick my fingers in pages and flip back and forth as easily as I can do in a printed technical manual.

Ed Rasimus said...

Yes, to format, but no to curricula control. Take a look at the offerings under universities/colleges im iTunes U.

Expatriate Owl said...

As those who follow my blog know, I teach at the university.


And because it is the students who are paying the money for the ever-increasing textbook prices, nobody in the college administration really, really cares (though some college administrators go through the pretensive motions).


My department was ordered to incorporate the Aplia [www.aplia.com] into our course curricula. Seems that one of the assistant department chairs has made a sweetheart deal with the Aplia people (who are really the traditional textbook publishers).

I am not one to criticize sweetheart deals per se, being that I do benefit from some of my own in various non-academic matters. But the thing that bothers me the most about this Aplia sweetheart deal is that the folks who are portraying themselves as the saviors of the oppressed and overcharged students are the same folks whose monopolistic practicies have caused the textbook prices to skyrocket in the first place.

Kind of like the arsonist who sets your house on fire, then comes back with the fire engine crew and pisses into your window, while bragging about how he is helping to extinguish the very fire he himself ignited.

FlyingBarrister said...

Optometrists and lasik surgeons all across the country were optimistic after hearing the news and considering the prospect of students of all ages spending even more time viewing computer screens.

foxone12 said...

'Bout time textbooks came out of the scam closet and into the open air of freedom and competition. Can't tell you how many times I 'donated' fifty or a hundred bucks for a textbook, only to have the professor mention after the start of class that the book's not needed.

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