Instructors and Open Textbooks

Freeload Press is publishing difficult-to-read textbooks as free, ad-supported downloads.

Interestingly, the Slashdot thread sparked by this news item revolves more around the issue of cost-prohibitive textbooks than around ideological issues surrounding advertisement in publication. Several of the dozens of comments in that thread are quite insightful, including some below the moderators’ radar.

Here’s my own comment on that thread, slightly edited.

My 2¢ as an instructor (cultural anthropology, African studies, linguistic anthropology, ethnomusicology).

Contrary to what some people seem to think, some of us instructors do care about the price of textbooks. Many of us see textbooks as a necessary evil and some of us get almost allergic reactions when sales representatives from publishing houses come to our offices. (Got several visits and calls myself, even as a visiting lecturer.) For those of us who care about reasonably-priced textbooks, some publishing houses’ practises are anti-competitive and unfair.
Case in point. Decided to use a short, inexpensive textbook for one of my introductory-level classes, two semesters in a row. Price and length did have an impact on my decision (the textbook was itself better than more expensive ones). It was published just in time for the first of those semesters and cost about 40$ at that point. The second semester, without notifying me, the publisher had bundled that textbook with another book. The bundle was 60$. Not that expensive. But my students still had to buy something that we never used.
One problem for an instructor, when the textbook is cost-prohibitive, is that students are more likely to complain if the course doesn’t follow the textbook very closely. Secondly, different editions are often confusing in the changes that they imply (much more so than software releases!) and it’s difficult for an instructor to keep track of all of those discrepancies. Not to mention that an expensive textbook may discourage students from buying other material for that subject.
According to someone close to me who used to work at a publishing house, textbooks are the main source of income for several publishers. A bit like “hits” for record labels, but students aren’t free to choose textbooks as they please.
Obviously, the financial model is skewed.

Those issues should be enough to encourage everyone to adopt a new model. But there’s even more.
Textbooks are typically written by a handful of authors who may be well qualified for explaining several of the issues included in those textbooks but who still have areas of limited expertise. The result in cultural anthropology, for instance, is that textbook chapters on language are usually full of inaccuracies while chapters on the authors’ areas of expertise appear quite decent. In some cases, an instructor might even end up having to “fight the textbook” instead of using it as a reference.
Online material accompanying textbooks in some disciplines generally seem like an afterthought instead of representing a central part of the approach. The ultimate effect is that students get disinterested in that material and will come to rely on other (and often unreliable) sources.
While some publishers offer instructors the possibility to use material from different books, these sources should all be from the same publisher. So an instructor can’t use Chapter 3 from Jane Smith’s textbook published by one of Thomson’s many subsidiaries and Chapter 4 from Amy Johnson’s textbook published by Oxford University Press. How can we get a diversity of viewpoints, in such a situation?

The solution, IMVHO? Open textbooks. Teaching material based on an open content model. Supported by instructors and their institutions. With a flexible, modular design.
Yes, Wikibooks may be part of that solution. But there are other issues to think about. How do we motivate instructors to contribute content to such a project? Does it count for tenure? Who will lead the effort to complete such a textbook? How can we integrate those books in our teaching? Will students use those textbooks the way they were intended or discount them based on perceived lack of quality? Are students without Internet access out of luck? Who will provide “technical” support to students and instructors? How can we produce affordable dead-tree copies for those who need them? How can we make deals with publishers to integrate excerpts from primary texts? How can we share material to instructors without giving too much away to students? How can we integrate this material with course management systems like Moodle (and, for the unlucky ones, even Blackboard)?

Still, if we get together, as students, administrators, and instructors, we can eventually solve all of these issues and, hopefully, challenge prevailing models of academic publication.

6 thoughts on “Instructors and Open Textbooks”

  1. I read on another blog post that talks about the interesting possibility that soon enough textbooks will become “free” to students as advertisers are using textbooks as a medium for marketing. Much like TV/radio are free public mediums… they are also used by advertisesrs, supported by consumers.

  2. Well, ad-supported textbooks are a reality in some fields but negative reactions are widespread. Open access textbooks have a different role to play, IMHO.
    (BTW, I do understand this might be a shameless plug but the point is interesting.)

  3. One possibility is just to produce cheaper textbooks. I was a college English teacher for about ten years but thankfully our school–a public two-year technical college in Texas–decided to start its own in-house publishing division four years ago. Our books don’t have all the bells and whistles–most of which, imho, equate little added value to students or faculty but do perform the valuable task for corporate textbook publishers of reducing/negating resale value–but they do typically have a retail price of $40-$60 for a 250-age textbook.

    (I know I’m getting into this discussion at a late date but I just came across this post from one those “possibly related posts” link from our WordPress blog.)

  4. @Mark What’s funny is that even though it’s an old post, I was thinking about textbook costs just today. My opinions haven’t changed much and I still wonder how much textbook production really costs. Publishers keep saying it’s very costly but apart from the bells and whistles, I’m really not sure what costs so much. Especially given the fact that teachers already create a lot of material on their own and textbooks are typically not as flawless as they should be.
    What gets me the most is that the complementary material, which often serves as a selling point, is often quite ineffective. PowerPoint slides, testbanks, instructor manuals, Web links…
    The other thing, and actually the main reason I started thinking about open textbooks, back in 2003, is that some chapters are typically much less adequate because their topics fall quite a bit outside the (typically lone) author’s areas of expertise. For instance, as a linguistic anthropologist, I often have a lot to criticize chapters on language in textbooks for cultural anthropology or sociology. What’s worse, many textbooks give very little space to perspectives outside of the author’s own and students aren’t encouraged to practice critical thinking. Sure, some textbooks are written by multiple authors. But, even then, voices don’t come through and we’re left with a falsely neutral perspective.
    I just moved back to Montreal from Austin. Because “Texas” has been a tag on several of my posts, it might be the reason this post was tagged as “possibly related.”
    Texas is a very specific market. It’d make sense to publish textbooks locally, partly because the market is big enough and partly because of some specific requirements.
    It might be an old post but the topic is quite current! 😉

  5. Random thoughts loosely on topic:

    Our world history text recently changed edition. World history has not changed much in the last three years, nor has its interpretation. The main functional alteration was to have some editorial hack go through and rewrite a bunch of nice clear sentences, making them longer and baroquer. This helpfully changed the pagination.

    Teachers who use the instructor manuals and testbanks are lazy, incompetent, or both. They should be instantly fired, except that bad adjuncts are often so hard to find, let alone good ones. And the good ones keep leaving because they get better jobs or move back to Canada.

  6. @Carl The cool thing is, I understand your sense of humour. 🙂
    About “Instructor Manuals” and other supplementals. At the risk of getting fired, I must admit that I do take a look at them. And I do look at as much content as I can, to see if they can add something to the learning process. Most of the time, though, the supplemental content seems more like a hindrance than like something I could use. So I end up making my own material, often informed by other books I’ve used.
    What I think would be useful, with Open Textbooks, is if learners and instructors were to build some supplementals together. The resulting material could be “mashed up” into customized versions for a group’s needs. “We’ve tried this discussion topic in connection with this chapter and this current event. The results were such.” Another group could add on to the set of discussion topics, exercises, lesson plans, slides…
    In fact, a lot of this can be done in parallel to any textbook. Most of the time, for me, the textbook is but one tool. It’s there to make sure there’s some basis for understanding and to support those students who require more hand-holding. If there’s a lecture component, the textbook frees me from talking about the specifics much and spend more time talking about broader concepts. It doesn’t work with everyone but it does work more than some people seem to think.
    Especially with Canadian students. 😛

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