Saturday, May 11, 2019

Something Has To Be Done About Textbooks

As the spring semester ends for colleges and universities across the country, students are done with their classes and, more importantly, no longer have to carry their heavy textbooks across campuses. Many students will return their books to get back a fraction of the cost; others will sell them to friends or lend them to siblings, but many will keep them and absorb the cost. One obvious truth is textbooks seem to be getting bigger and heavier, which unfortunately corresponds with them being more expensive.

My semester is ending too, and I have to carry textbooks for my classes along with students' papers, my attendance folders, and supplies. A few years ago I decided to stop carrying everything in a large briefcase slung on my shoulder because it caused too much pain. I switched to a Samsonite with wheels, and I find that so much better - except when there is heavy rain or snow; then I am forced to put the strap over my shoulder or carry it by the handle.

Two weeks ago students in my technical writing class gave their end of semester presentations. For this assignment they pick something that will improve campus life. A couple of them chose the topic of up textbooks, and they were not only concerned about their heft but their exorbitant price tags. I have always been bothered by this and it reminded me that nothing has changed much since I was lugging heavy, expensive books around campus as a student.

Except so much has changed in terms of technology. There is no reason why any student should be lugging around a twenty pound, $500 textbook. It is beyond absurd when we know that all of a student's textbooks could be found on a thin, light laptop instead. So why does this travesty continue to happen?

Some people blame the textbook companies and others blame faculty, and this could be true in some cases, but I know many of my colleagues share my concern with the cost and heft of textbooks. In my case I assign the minimal amount of textbooks that work for my classes, but sometimes the textbook companies create new editions and that is how they make their money. Since the old editions are no longer available, I have to go with the new ones and thus so do my students.

I always stress to my students to get books for my classes at the lowest price possible - which seems to be renting a digital version. I have no issues with students using laptops or tablets in class, but some instructors do. We have to get over the aversion to technology in the classroom no matter how much we have a love affair with printed books.

While I support the use of digital textbooks in my classes, they are not all created equally. The problems with digital or e-books include the fact that many required books are not available in that format. This would involve the publishers making them available or instructors choosing alternate texts. E-books can be expensive also, and you cannot return them like physical books or share them with a younger sibling or sell them to a friend who is taking the course next semester.

I prefer to read physical books myself. I know it would be infinitely easier to read an electronic version, especially when going on a plane or to a beach, but I like a "page turner" and there is nothing more satisfying than turning an actual page in a real book. I love the smell of a new book, opening it for the first time, and feeling the soft sheen of the pages. There is also the joy of holding an old volume, the smokey, musty smell wafting from its yellowing pages, so I do understand wanting a real book, but that is not practical in the modern classroom, and we have to support this change that is without a doubt inevitable, no matter how slowly it may come.

This problem is not limited to higher education. My children in high school and grammar school are carrying home seriously heavy backpacks. When I pick up their bags it seems someone has slipped a pair of dumbbells in them. It is ridiculous that kids have to lug around such heavy backpacks at school in 2019, and it is detrimental to their health as well.  causing shoulder and back pain.

It is time for a change in classrooms all across the country. Electronic textbooks should be required by all universities, colleges, and K-12 school districts. When students enter a new school year, each one should be given a tablet or laptop for use in class and at home. These devices will have ISBN numbers on them or some other identifying code that can be scanned. Students will be responsible to maintain the devices and return them in the same condition as when they received them. In the best of all worlds, the students' required textbooks could be pre-loaded at the start of the semester by the institution, and in higher education included in their tuition for a nominal fee.

I understand that textbooks companies will be as happy with this proposal as Kodak must have been with digital cameras, but that company changed to meet the needs of the modern world, and the textbook publishers must do the same.

It is getting more expensive to attend colleges and universities, and rising textbook prices are like rubbing salt in students' wounds. While I'll leave the cost of a college education for another day, we owe it to students to cut the cost of textbooks and embrace technology inside and outside of the classroom. Digital textbooks or e-books are a necessary and compelling change that will benefit all students and their professors and teachers as well. 

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