Caroline Vanderlip had what sounded like an exciting post at IHE last week: “Going Digital ≠ Lower Textbook Prices.” I was ready for an interesting discussion of the difficulties inherent in shifting the burden of textbook output from publishers to faculty and students, envisioning already the debate we could have about whether forcing students to print their materials (at $.05 a page, at least) or to bring computers or tablets to class might be a hidden con of the online/OER “market.”
Instead, what this article offers is an old idea wrapped up in new language, all of it disguising an advertisement for Vanderlip’s textbook company, AcademicPub (TM). Here’s a sample of the piece:
This too, seems attractive, but we are a long way from having OER content dominate the learning landscape, even if much of it is free. The creation of content by academic publishers is part of our literary and reporting traditions, and any system for delivering content to students should take both “free and open” and commercially produced materials into account.
In fact, the best chance to make an immediate and meaningful impact on the price of textbooks is to facilitate the merging of traditional and free content, allowing instructors to include exactly what is necessary, and freeing students from the rigid and expensive traditional offerings from academic publishers. In this model, “book” costs are lowered regardless of output format.
A few thoughts:
- Our literary and reporting traditions also include only printing books on hemp “paper” between sheepskin covers, but I don’t hear anyone calling for a return to that.
- More seriously, our literary traditions, insofar as we’re talking about textbooks, include the option to sell books back at the end of a term, which Frankentexts (cobbled together single-section reading packets) often don’t allow.
- Is the creation of content by publishers really something we’re cheering for? I’m still — call me old fashioned — really more interested in supporting good work by academic authors. Whether or not the company of Bedford St. Martin’s gets to have its creative say in the world just doesn’t move me.
- I’m absolutely positive that “‘book’ costs are lowered regardless of output format” only when every book comes with a $20 bill taped to it. If this is what AcademicPub(TM) offers, I will take 10. Now. Otherwise, I find it very hard to believe that a generated hybrid of traditional and OER/free content couldn’t somehow exceed the cost of other traditional content. I’m certain I can build a Frankentext worth $200.
There’s an interesting conversation to be had about the ways that traditional books can be matched with free content to create a path of least resistance for students and professors who still appreciate the traditional formats. It seems like a nice way for “old school” folks to be eased into the new media future. However, it’s disingenuous to claim that custom course packets (even under shiny textbook-ish covers, made by a teacher-friendly web site) are a new savior. Most major publishers already offer content packaged on the fly, and they charge delightful premiums for the privilege. Professors everywhere have been creating their own Frankentexts for years — we just don’t do this as much any more, since we worry more about the trees it takes to print 30 comb-bound copies of a 400-page poorly-kerned text.
Likewise, most traditional textbooks already combine free material into their readers, sometimes in order to reduce the book’s cost, sometimes because George Orwell is just the best out there at what he does.
The service that AcademicPub offers could be great, particularly for faculty members (like me!) who work without the safety net of a printing office that can check copyright rules for us. Still, I’m not sure hybrid texts are the future; they seem much more like an ongoing concession to the past.