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The future of textbooks

I figure the traditional textbook is eventually going to go away, but how and when it will be replaced is not yet clear.

The average college student spent $702 on books in 2006-07, according to the National Association of College Stores — a figure that has continued to grow and is speeding the transition to electronic textbooks and other digital class materials.

“At some point, we’re going to price ourselves out of the marketplace,” said Anthony Martin, director of the campus bookstore at Houston Baptist University. “Kids are going to figure out a way of getting through school without books at all.”

Relief has been sporadic, at best. Plans to exempt textbooks from the state sales tax fizzled in the Legislature this spring. But an increasing number of faculty members are paying attention to the price of the books they assign, and a few are using electronic textbooks — about half the price of a print book — or materials that can be downloaded free.

Rice University is one of the leading players in the latter movement, which has the potential to reshape the textbook industry.

“This is the generation that grew up with the Internet and TV,” said R.H. Richardson, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin, who will use an electronic textbook for the first time this fall. “I think the e-book will evolve far beyond its present state. You can stick in a video if you want to. I’m sure there will be video games built into a textbook some day.”

Thinking back to my experience in college, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, I’d say that you could replace the bulk of the dead-tree books for the problem solving classes – calculus, linear algebra, differential equations – with computer-based training and texts pretty easily. Classes that are about doing proofs, maybe not. But taking derivatives, solving integrals, that sort of thing, I don’t see why it couldn’t be done on the computer. If a company like Reasoning Mind, which is delivering math curricula at the grade school level here in Houston among other places, can do it for grade schoolers, surely someone can do it for college kids.

Beyond that, it seems to me that a lot of the books I bought in college were plain old ordinary books, not textbooks. I see no reason why you couldn’t just get them on your Kindle or whatever digital-book device you have. At least that would create competition for the campus bookstore, and would make it easier to find and buy used copies, which would push prices down. Maybe you could rent them this way, instead of buying them – how many books from college do you still own after graduation? I have some math books, including a few from graduate school, and a couple of other random books, but it’s maybe ten percent of the total I bought over four years. I suspect some texts will still be delivered as plain old bound paper for years to come, but I see no reason why most of what is being bought now can’t be transformed into electronic format in the near future, if not already.

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One Comment

  1. Luke says:

    The tools already exist as you point out. So why isn’t it happening? It shouldn’t be overlooked that professors have their own incentives in the textbook market and the power to assign whatever materials they want, including their own.

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