Posted by: Hillary Corbett
It’s been two years since I last posted about textbooks, and with classes starting this week, I thought it was a good time to write an update to that post. Since then, a few things have changed.
First, the Bad News…
The cost of textbooks just keeps going up. The New York Times article from October 2009 that I cited in my previous post estimated that college students spent, on average, between $700 and $1,000 each year on textbooks. Fast forward to August 2012… the Wall Street Journal just reported that the average student’s textbook bill is now up to $1,213 a year.
(Of course, you can always try selling a purchased textbook back to the bookstore at the end of the term, but, having stood in the buyback line myself recently, I know as well as you do that it’s not exactly a money-making opportunity – if you’re able to sell it back at all, that is. Textbook editions change so frequently that the copy you just bought may well be worthless in only a few months.)
Okay, How About Some Good News?
There now are more alternatives to paying the full amount for a new, hardcover textbook. Textbook rental programs have really taken off in the past couple of years – the NU bookstore has been offering a rental program since Fall 2010, with both print and e-textbooks available for rental. If you’re taking ENGL 1102 this semester, for example, you can choose between buying a new or used copy of Ways of Reading, or rent a copy for about half the cost of buying a new one. Rental can be a good option when you can’t picture yourself referring back to your dogeared copy after you’re done with the course. Online rental companies are also popular – Chegg has been around for a while, and Amazon just got into the textbook rental market, too (although at least one blogger found their selection a bit “skimpy”).
It seems like we’ve been hearing a lot about e-textbooks for a long time now, but the iPad has really helped that market take off in the last year. More publishers are working to convert their traditional textbooks into iPad apps, which allow for interactivity in ways that an e-book on, say, a Kindle doesn’t offer. It looks like publishers are realizing that an e-textbook can be much more than a PDF.
“Open” textbooks are also gaining traction, as more faculty choose to adopt them for their courses. Publishers like Flat World Knowledge and Boundless offer online learning materials that are free or available for purchase on a sliding scale. Individual faculty are creating open educational resources (OERs) as well – here at Northeastern, Dr. Albert-László Barabási’s network science course website offers a great example of how OERs can be much more than static texts.
What’s the Bottom Line?
This is a great time to start investigating alternatives to traditional printed textbooks – and as you can see, there are lots of options. Faculty – I encourage you to “think outside the shrinkwrap,” if you’re not already doing so. Students – investigate options and talk to your instructors. Let them know that you want to see textbooks become more affordable. And, if nothing else, ask them to put a desk copy of the textbook on reserve at the library!
Update, 9/10/12: If you’re interested in learning about new developments in this area, I maintain an up-to-date list of links to news stories and blog posts on Delicious (also available as an RSS feed).
Posted in: Scholarly Communications