What’s wrong with my textbook?

Why is it so hard to learn from?

Your textbook was not written for you, but for instructors.
More topics means more adoptions.
Each instructor sees favorite topics and adopts.
Your book is thus enormous, a mountain of information.
Perhaps a good reference.

More supplements also mean more adoptions.
Exercises. Solutions. Lab manuals.
Presentation slides. Videos. Teacher versions.
If an instructor might want it, creators make it.
That means less time improving the key topics.

Great formatting is confused with great content.
Formatting is done superbly. Exquisite really.
But that’s hard.
So is synchronizing your book with its many supplements.
Improving your book is hard, because even small changes are hard.
Like a car in the mud, your book gets stuck.

Reading walls of text is hard for you.
It’s not your fault.
You grew up with computers, smart phones, and pads,
running interactive software, apps, and videos.
But writing text is easier, so text it is.
And some think you shouldn’t rely on new technology,
forgetting that textbooks were once new technology too.

Moving existing books online doesn’t help.
Same wall of text, just online.
No wonder they haven’t taken off.
Maybe some questions or animations are added.
But afterthoughts can make things worse,
a chaotic hodge-podge of stuff.

Why so expensive?

Textbook prices have soared, twice more than inflation.
Hundreds of dollars for a book today.
The printing cost is just a few bucks.
What’s going on?

Quality books and supplements come from hardworking people.
Authors. Editors. Product managers.
Proofreaders. Illustrators. Compositors.
Accountants and secretaries too.
Don’t they deserve to be paid?
They produce something valuable.

They only get paid from new book sales.
But today’s web means used books are easier to get.
So publishers produce frequent new editions,
and increase their price,
to pay those hardworking people
from the few new sales that occur
before used books dominate again.

Are free open-source textbooks the answer?
If you want a great movie about Abraham Lincoln,
do you crowdsource it?
No, you hire Spielberg.
A great textbook requires great authors.

Are free government-funded textbooks the answer?
We ought to learn from history.
Great products come from visionaries
motivated by competition, impact, and reward.

What can be done?

The solution lies in the web.

Textbook creators can help,
by writing from scratch, for the web.
People learn by doing, so use the web for doing.
Less text, more activities.
Publishers will have to compete with their existing books.
It’s the classic Innovator’s Dilemma.
Kodak didn’t lead digital photography.
IBM didn’t lead personal computer operating systems.

They can help by making books configurable by instructors,
so students can focus on their own class’ topics.
No mountain of information.
Less is more here.
Homework systems, videos, quizzes, should be built in.
No disorienting jumping between technologies.

A web-native textbook
should have a much lower price,
because each student subscribes.
The losers are the middlemen,
those dealing in used books or rentals,
who take your money without contributing to creators.
The winners are the students,
who get fair-priced textbooks that continually improve.

Instructors can help,
by not equating formatting with content.
Beauty is only skin deep.
Let authors focus on real material, real learning.
The modern textbook should not be a static masterpiece,
but a dynamic entity
that is continually improved.

They can help, by embracing web-native material,
even if not as polished as Nth-edition incumbents,
or as familiar as hardcopies.
By pressuring publishers for moderately priced options,
that include long-term personal access for the student.

And you the student can help.
By taking pride, when prices are reasonable,
in supporting content creators,
whether for music, movies, or books.

By speaking out to instructors about change,
because silence supports the status quo.
Find active material you’d like to learn from,
and ask instructors, before the semester, to consider it.
Provide feedback to instructors after the semester
about whether the textbook was useful.
Instructors love to see students interested in learning.

United students—rational, outspoken, and persistent—
have more power than they think.


Copyright (c) 2014 Frank Vahid, Roman Lysecky
Frank Vahid, Prof. of Computer Science and Engin., U of California, Riverside.
Roman Lysecky, Assoc. Prof. of Electrical and Computer Engin., U of Arizona.
Both are authors with zybooks.com

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Visit us at zybooks.com

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