Textbook Economics

Back in the dark ages, I remember being very upset about the amount of money I spent in the college bookstore as an incoming freshman. Every course had at least one textbook that had to be purchased. English had several books, but at least they were small and relatively cheap. The kicker, I remember, was calculus. This was no $35 paperback like the structured programming and educational psychology texts. No, this was a $65 hardcover tome that I wasn’t looking forward to lugging around campus. The only consolation was that it contained three courses’ worth of calculus, so I was saving money in the long run.

That book is still sitting on my bookshelf, though I can’t say that I’ve opened it in the last decade. After three semesters, it was out of date and practically worthless. There wasn’t really much point in selling it back. Besides, I was going to be a math teacher. It might come in handy when teaching AP Calculus somewhere down the road. Like I said, its main purpose in life these days is to keep the bookshelf from blowing away if an unexpected tornado should rip through our home office.

Old booksThings have changed a lot since I went to college. This week, The Business Shrink reported that college textbook prices rose 186% between 1986 and 2004. They cite two studies by the U. S. government that report an annual increase in textbook costs of around 6%. That’s about double the inflation rate. The average American college student spends $893 a year on textbooks. If you’re interested, you can read the U. S. Department of Education Report or the Government Accountability Office Report.

There doesn’t seem to be any indication that things have improved since 2004. In an unscientific survey of college students working in my office, we determined that, while textbook prices vary widely, a student can expect to spend around $100 per book. Some of the texts include CDs, and these have to be purchased new because the digital rights management on them prevents them from being re-sold. Sometimes, students can get a break by purchasing electronic-only versions of the textbooks in a subscription model, but students still spend $100-150 per course for books.

That’s the college picture. What about K-12? Our science books are running around $65 for the student edition. Our geometry book is $68. The American history book is $99. All told, each of our high school students is carrying around at least $350-400 worth of textbooks. That’s well over half a million dollars worth of books for our 1600 student high school. In fact, district-wide, we spend more than twice as much money each year on textbooks as we do on technology.

Now… what if we wrote our own books? I know, I’m crazy. But hear me out. We have the best teachers around. Our American history teachers can make their subject come alive. Our math teachers can explain really complicated things in a way that makes them seem easy. Our biology teachers can draw a diagram on the board from scratch in 40 minutes that explains photosynthesis better than a whole chapter in the students’ bio books. All of these teachers could create their own teaching materials, and those materials would be better than the ones we’re spending a fortune on now.

Right now, our teachers get $37.50 per hour for course of study writing. Let’s say we want them to write a textbook. A year-long course might be divided into thirty chapters, with each being in the neighborhood of 10-20 pages long. I’m thinking in terms of a traditional textbook for the moment, though the final result may not necessarily take that form. If I could encorporate creative commons and public domain work along with my own writing, I could probably create a first draft of a chapter in about 20 hours. Revisions and peer editing might take another 5-10 hours. All told, we could probably write the book for around $30,000. That will last us five years, after which we would have to spend more money to revise it (though significantly less than the original investment).

If we do this for a course that all students take, that works out to about $75 per student. For that much, we could just buy the textbooks and be done with it. But what if we write an American history text, and we get the school down the street to write world history, and we trade? Then, we get two textbooks for $30,000. If ten schools did this, we could cover the whole social studies department without spending any more money. If a hundred schools participated, we could probably take care of all of our textbook needs at every grade level, in every subject. For 10% of our current textbook budget, we could build a sustainable program.

“But there are no books,” you’re saying. “You haven’t printed anything.” Right. There are lots of ways to handle this. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use newsprint. We have our school newspaper printed on newsprint for around 25 cents a copy. Print each unit as needed, and give a disposable copy to the students. They’re carrying around a paper that weighs a few ounces instead of a big, heavy book. At the end of the unit, just recycle them. Total cost? Maybe $8 per kid for a year long class.
  • Use portable media. Burn it to a CD or put it on a flash drive. The students would have to have computers to read it, which would be a big disadvantage. They could selectively print if necessary, but that would be expensive if they did it on laser printers at school. The focus would have to be on reading it on the screen. I saw an ad for customized 1 GB flash drives yesterday. They were $8 each, and we can get our school logo printed on them. CDs are about 20 cents each.
  • Put it on the web. We could use a wiki for a collaborative document, or we could put it in a course management system if we wanted to control access to it. Students access the material online. There’s nothing to carry back and forth to school. Again, they have to have computers to access it, but we could provide hard copies to those without access if necessary.
  • Use Portable devices. Use a document reader in a PDA, or an e-book reader, or even an mp3 player. Remember, we’re saving a few hundred thousand dollars a year, here. Over time, this might even be enough to pay for a 1:1 laptop initiative. That would have a transformational effect on how we do school.

I’m not saying there aren’t challenges. But information is not at a premium anymore. We shouldn’t be paying these prices just for information. We can put that stuff together ourselves and do a better job for less money.

3 thoughts on “Textbook Economics

  1. I meant to post a comment on this last week. Sorry for the late reply.

    If you were rolling out your own textbook there’s no reason to limit it to one format. I would think that for cost effectiveness creating eBooks or audio books would be great, and those two formats alone would reach most of your students. Ebooks provide the added benefit of allowing students to create notes within the book, and for students that don’t have access to a PC, inexpensive handhelds could be loaned. I haven’t checked lately, but http://www.overdrive.com (based in Cleveland) used to offer ebook publishing solutions, as does mobipocket.com

    I’ve been looking at the Drupal CMS, and it offers a specific book module. I haven’t checked it out yet, but it may be a good solution for a web-based textbook. Maybe a wiki could work as well.

    This is a good idea. I hope it is folowed-up in some form.

  2. I was thinking along these same lines several years ago, but had no idea how to get districts and teachers to go along with it.

    While it is a worthwhile goal, I’m afraid the cynicism in me would say that the textbook companies would lobby to make this not a viable option. If you look at Texas or California, their textbooks are the same across the state. I don’t know if districts are required to purchase the textbooks though.

    Teacher written textbooks could easily be done at the state level. They have the money for it, the expertise, and the management to get something done.

    But couldn’t the textbook be looked at as an outdated concept? We’ve already created curriculum maps, shouldn’t we instead create a repository of lessons, information, and activities that support these curriculum maps? A teacher can then go and grab just the “chapter” they need. There are several good lessons on the ODE website, unfortunately, the organization isn’t the best and it is sometimes difficult to find and use it.

    Perhaps a MediaWiki where teachers are paid to add to it during the summer months, all licensed under the Creative Commons.

  3. Hey John,
    Well done here, John! And if the skills and talents of the local information sciences/librarians are tapped to help build out content, I’m willing to bet the price could be driven down even further. Imagine if the history dept. teamed with the library department and the instructiional technology resource folks. The library folks could help seed the digital texts with a host of wonderful content that they’re either getting for free or paying for via subscription (ABC Clio, proquest, yada yada yada). Then incorporate open web content that the instructional tech resource person and everyone else on the collaborative team helps find and combine this with the expertise of content area history teacher folk and we have a pretty powerful digital text.

    How could this text then be distributed to learners?? Via a cheap, inexpensive notebook computer that the students purchase in the school store every 3-4 for $300-$400 apiece.

    Good thinking here, John. Thanks for sharing.

    Matt Montagne
    Palo Alto, CA

Comments are closed.