Textbooks Enter the Digital Era
High-Tech options can save money and boost learning
The basic introductory physics textbook for college students has remained largely the same for the past century, perhaps longer. So why then, wondered Northeastern University student Jason Turgeon, did his freshman physics course require him to buy a brand-new textbook for about $160, even though he'd used one with similar material in high school? Then, one semester, he shared books, found stuff online, and got the cost for all classes that term down to $35, recalls Turgeon, now a senior. That book bill otherwise would have been $500. After hearing other students echo his frustration, Turgeon in January 2005 started textbookrevolution.org, which links visitors to a variety of free college-level, digital textbooks on the Web.
Textbooks, those all-too-familiar expensive backpack burdens, are no longer dominating the classroom experience as they did for decades. When computers moved into education, textbook publishers started to add digital tools-video clips, interactive lessons, databases-to disks packaged with the books. That drove up prices, and students and professors in response turned to the Internet to look for the best bargains. What they're increasingly finding out now is that-thanks to the accessibility of cyberteaching tools on the Web-maybe they don't need that old-fashioned textbook at all.
Granted, reports of the textbook's complete demise, as Mark Twain might fittingly acknowledge, would be an exaggeration. There are thousands of traditional textbooks published every year, enough to make it a $6.5 billion-a-year business in the 2004-05 academic year, says the National Association of College Stores. But there are good reasons to look beyond that traditional tome. The cost of the average college textbook increased 186 percent between 1986 and 2004, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. Those costs, according to the GAO, were best explained by the expenses of developing and bundling additional materials like CDs, DVDs, and websites that supplement the traditional pages.
The net result for students is that their book bill now averages about $900 a year and can be even more costly for those enrolled in courses like sciences or art history, which use required reading that is particularly expensive to produce. "Lots of material gets added because the publishers want to serve as many people as possible," says Angelica Stacy, a chemistry professor at the University of California-Berkeley. What's more, she says, "You end up with huge books that you can't get through in a course."
Critics also charge that by bundling disks, workbooks, and website access into a textbook, companies are changing the equation for textbook resellers. "Publishers are doing everything they can to undermine the used-book market," says Ava Hegedus, former national affordable-textbooks coordinator for the student Public Interest Research Groups. Once opened, the bundled resources, like course DVDs, can't be resold.
State to state. So students are turning to the Internet for options. There are, of course, a host of sites for new and used books, from eBay's shopping site, Half.com, to independent outfits like varsitybooks.com and ecampus.com. But despite the ease of use of these sites, their business is only a fraction of the total textbook market. A 2006 report by the NACS found that 23 percent of students buy their books online and of those online sales, a third are from the websites of existing campus bookstores. Seventeen states, such as Virginia and Connecticut, have recently proposed legislation to help curb the rising costs of books, including the requirement that schools post the international barcode number of each of the required texts so that students can comparison-shop online. The new Connecticut law also would require publishers to tell professors what the books cost before the professors assign their students to buy them.