That’ll Be a Gazillion Dollars, Plus Tax: The High Cost of Textbooks

college_bookstore

I remember the first time I had to buy books as an undergraduate.  I took my schedule and dutifully pulled book after book off the shelves for my courses and tried not to hyperventilate as I mentally tallied the increasing tab. Since I was a literature major, I was relatively lucky. My trade paper readings were typically between $20 and $40 dollars, but there were usually three or four required books per class. In addition to the required books, there was frequently a required “course packet,” a collection of copywritten essays the professor had had copied and bound. These course packets could vary widely in price, but I do not recall any being less than fifty dollars.  With a six course load, books fees were hundreds of dollars every single semester.

Yet, looking at the science major’s cart beside me, I knew I was getting off easy. Just one of their hefty, hardcover textbooks was $200 or more. We all stood in line and wondered just how long a person could survive on Ramen noodles…

Now, I graduated (static…crackling…mumbling) years ago. Okay… ten years ago…with my Master’s degree. Since then, there have been incredible technological advances: no one knew a “Nook” or a “Kindle” or an “iPad” could even be a thing in the world in 2003. If we had known such innovations were coming, I’m certain most of us would have guessed ebooks would have made textbooks and other materials far cheaper for students.

Nope.

Let me say that louder.

NOPE.

In fact, textbooks have gone up EIGHT HUNDRED AND TWELVE PERCENT since 1978!  Look!

textbook_prices

Ummm, what? And why?

Both The Atlantic and Slate have recently written about this issue. In Slate, Kevin Carey puts some of the blame on professors who order up their “wish list” of course materials for their classes with little regard to how necessary the book is to their class. (I cannot say that this has been my experience as a professor, but perhaps that is because I teach in a relatively low-income district. We are all hyper aware of how much our students have to shell out for required materials and make every effort to minimize those costs.)

Carey also identifies another reason for the elevation of textbook costs: bundling.  Publishers include things like software or handbooks that you may not want or need, either as a student or a professor, but you have no choice in the matter; you have to buy the bundle.

Still, the move to digital textbooks is increasing  and this astronomical rise in prices is likely a last-ditch effort for the textbook publishing mob…errr.. business…to collect all the money possible while they can.

I wonder what’s going to happen to the price of Ramen noodles in ten years?

 


Drawbacks to the Kindle in the Classroom?

If you were to go back to the old copies of the novels and plays I still rely upon—To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Hamlet—to do my daily teaching, you would see all sorts of scribbled notes in different colored pens.  You would see highlighters in every color imaginable.  You would see small pieces of printed material taped to pages.  You would see dog-ears and great big rips among the stressed-out bindings of my paperback copies.  You would see the small word “Ha!” scrawled next to anything remotely funny.

Well, according to a new Princeton study, if I relied upon a Kindle DX to view these same literary masterpieces, I’d be in quite the pickle, indeed.

I remember a teacher I had long ago preaching to the class about how margin notes reeked of lower intelligence.  I can only laugh at her now as I use some of those very notes, some from wise souls as far back as high school, to teach my own classes.  Although not for everyone, notes on the side of a page are like gold to me.  They always reveal the teacher’s wisdom on the subject:  wisdom that I often lacked at the time, . . . and that wisdom is scrawled right next to the exact quote from the work in question.

Thus stands the problem for both students and teachers for the Kindle DX.

According to a recent article from USA Today and follow-up in educationnews.org, the college students at Princeton (although well equipped to embrace the new technology) grew frustrated with a few simple functions that were lacking.  Stated simply, the Kindle DX has no ability to highlight, no ability to use different colors to differentiate underlined text, no way to scrawl simple notes in a margin (only typed on a keypad), no easy way to maneuver through the work to underlined text, no way to skim or flip randomly through a work, no way to mark text via “page” number, no way to keep multiple texts open at the same time, and no real system for organizing typed annotation.

In short, although this product is perfect for simple reading, the students at Princeton weren’t convinced it was a good scholarly aid.

This device needs to make things easier, not more frustrating, for students trying to annotate and, further, for students following along in class when the professor simply asks them to “turn to page 154.”  Michael Koenig, director of operations at Virginia’s Darden School of Business who also ran a Kindle DX study, said, “It’s just not as flexible or nimble as having your paper notes or your laptop right there, . . . not quite ready for prime time.”

Still, others called it a “first-generation product” with lots of potential.  At least 15% of students loved the device, citing perfection for students on-the-go as well as the “green” aspect of using zero paper products.

For me, unless the descendants of the new Kindle come with a stylus and different color options, I think I’ll pass on this technology for everything except the simple reading of a text.  However, that isn’t to say that these improvements aren’t already hanging in the balance . . . .


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