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October 22, 2009

Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Posted by John Baez

College textbooks are really expensive these days. In California, a law was passed to tackle this problem. But it seems to lack teeth.

One way to tackle this problem is to develop free online textbooks. I think a wiki-based approach could be good. People are trying it. Will it ever catch on?

It might also make sense for the NSF, or other funding agencies, to pay for scholars to write free online textbooks — or improve existing ones.

Now this has finally happened.

First, a bit about the California law, AB 2477. It went into effect on January 1st, 2005. Here’s an old story from Capital Campus News:

The bill arose from a study released by CALPIRG in January, that surveyed 156 faculty and 521 students at public colleges throughout California and Oregon.

The findings showed that University of California students would spend an average of $898 per year on textbooks, based on what they had paid in Fall 2003. In contrast, a 1997 University of California survey found students spent on average $642 on textbooks that year.

It might seem that AB 2477 is a victory for students in search of financial relief. However, the law does not actually require publishers, school faculty, or universities to make price reductions. Nor will it hold them accountable for failing to follow through.

“This bill puts state recommended guidelines in place,” Blackledge said. “Publishers could choose to ignore the guidelines, but if they do, they will likely have to deal with irritated legislators in future years.”

Assemblywoman Liu initially intended to require publishers to offer “unbundled” options, those books not packaged with expensive supplements like CD-ROMs, which often go unused by students.

Liu also wanted to prohibit publishers from coming out with new editions so often. But legislative counsel told the Liu team that these requirements would violate publishers’ First Amendment rights.

According to Lynn Lorber, a consultant in the Assembly Higher Education Committee, lawmakers opted for urging and encouraging, rather than making demands that flirted with legal trouble.

Although the law doesn’t include any oversight to watch over the process, lawmakers expect publishers and universities alike to follow through with the requests.

“Assemblywoman Liu and staff will be watching the textbook publishing industry very closely over the next year,” Lorber said.

In the event that the law is not as effective as planned, Lorber says Liu would introduce additional legislation to resolve difficulties in implementing textbook price reductions.

In the meantime, some publishers have already offered alternatives.

Pearson Education, one of the major college textbook producers, recently launched SafariX. This on-line digital textbook subscription service allows students to save as much as 50 percent on selected books by subscribing to a “web-book” version instead of buying the print version.

And Thomson Higher Education has announced they will cut prices by using fewer photos, less color, and unbound editions in loose-leaf binders.

As for eliminating those “bundled” textbooks, the decision will continue to be left to individual professors.

I haven’t felt any significant effect myself. Indeed, in recent years math students at UCR are paying even more. Why? Thanks to the lack of state funding, we can no longer afford for homework to be graded by hand in lower-level courses. So, students need to buy access to ‘Webassign’, where they do homework online and it’s graded automatically. Webassign only supports the big famous textbooks. And it only knows how to grade a small fraction of the homework problems in these texts. Certainly nothing that involves graphing or proofs! So now the choice of homework problems is significantly less, and the students have to pay for it to be graded.

Apparently what California needs are free online textbooks and a free software that allows for automatic grading. Either that, or a legislature that cares about the education system.

But enough about the sad state of California. Here’s some good news from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

October 20, 2009
An E-Textbook Program Aims to Benefit Students and Professors

By Ben Terris

The University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh’s College of Business is creating a new type of e-textbook that will give professors more control of their content while also saving students hundreds of dollars in the process.

The program, a result of a nearly $300,000 grant from U.S. Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education, will commission professors to create texts personalized for specific classes and put them in a digital format that will bring textbook prices down from their average cost of $100 to a much more moderate $15.

While the idea of money-saving digital textbooks is not new, M. Ryan Haley, an associate professor of economics at the university, sees this program as an opportunity to alter just how these textbooks are created and utilized. Using a “core concepts” paradigm, Mr. Haley will write 80 percent of the first e-textbook in the program — a statistics book — leaving room for each professor to customize the book with his or her own appendices.

“Professors always have their own style of teaching, even if the general material is the same,” Mr. Haley said in an interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education. “So it doesn’t make sense for everyone to have the same exact texts. Some professors would be unsatisfied with the materials; some would be teaching the books in a goofy order, it would backfire.”

[…]

Mr. Haley said he hoped to have the first book ready for use by the fall of 2010.

Will these new textbooks be generally available, or only at this college? It makes a huge difference.

Does anyone know about other initiatives along these lines?

Posted at October 22, 2009 8:03 PM UTC

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Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

It seems to me that the students of UC and CSU together constitute a huge market for textbooks. And they buy textbooks only because the universities require them! If these two State institutions (and possibly the community colleges) got together and told publishers that they will not require any textbooks that cost more than a certain amount or will not require new editions that come out faster than a certain frequency, then this would constitute significant pressure on publishers. (It's my understanding that California's content guidelines for primary and secondary education have a huge impact on those publishers.)

To have teeth, this would have to take away from individual professors' and departments' ability to require the texts that they want to use (although it is only the introductory courses that really matter here). So it would need support from the Legislature and student organisations. (The latter are already upset at the university for raising tuition, and they are not accepting the university's attempt to shift the blame to the Legislature. So maybe there is already some sympathy here.) The ability to require expensive books is what economists call a ‘moral hazard’: you get to make students spend a lot of money, but it's not coming out of your budget!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 22, 2009 10:13 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Some more thoughts about how economics relate to textbooks occur here (both in the article and in the comments). The only thing I’d question with is the suggestion that it’s a fixed cost that publishers desire to recoup over however many copies they can sell, whereas I suspect it’s more accurately states as fixed cost plus profit per manuscript (for textbooks, not “monographs”).

I guess there’s another potential conflict of interest in the market: if you’re an academic, writing an introductory textbook is probably a gamble as regards to how well it’s rewarded financially, but it’s something that’s relatively straightforward (if exhausting) and is guaranteed to look good on the resume. Will they look so good if it’s basically sticking stuff into a wiki, and might that occasion resistance from faculty members to these e-book texts?

Posted by: bane on October 22, 2009 11:05 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

If you write a text for your school to reduce costs to your school's students, then your school ought to give you credit for that, even though you're not going through a traditional publisher.

Of course, ‘ought’ is an important word here. But if a school wants to lower textbook costs, then recognising textbook publication outside of the traditional publishers is one way to do it!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 23, 2009 12:20 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

In this context it is also worth noting Connexions. I think their model of writing short reusable modules that can be compiled into courses or textbooks is a good model for this purpose.

Posted by: Matt Leifer on October 22, 2009 10:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

I think their model of writing short reusable modules that can be compiled into courses or textbooks is a good model for this purpose.

In the early days of Wikibooks, there was a lot of talk of doing things this way, but it never really worked out like that. So it's nice to somebody doing that!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 22, 2009 10:49 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

One reason that someone chooses to write a calculus text, for example, is because that person thinks that she can present the material better than anyone else. Usually, there are one or two chapters that are better, but the market forces the innovative texts to become homogeneous.

The most important parts of low level texts are worked examples and exercises. Specific exercises, I have been told, are not copyright protected. I don’t know the veracity of that. Nevertheless, any collaborative effort for on-line texts has to include replete problem sets.

So if several people made a decision to write their favorite section or sections of a text, developed a couple of youtube videos on the topic, and some person or robot compiled the results on a common page, then the text book issue in math would or could go away quickly. As long as problem lists were developed, the entire undergraduate sequence from (yikes) college algebra through differential equations and maybe even as far as linear algebra could be public domain, copylefted, or appropriately free.

There would have to be some knowledge on the part of the university that these public services were part of one’s professional development. And consequently, some tenure or salary rewards could be part of the system. Other than that, the process would have to be an altruistic endeavor.

One thing that could happen under this scenario is that a strong group of editors or some degree of public opinion might help determine which explanation is more clear. However, the community has to be keenly aware that “good” and “popular” are not the same, and bean-counters may decide that the number of hits on youtube determines your raise.

I don’t think that in mathematics developing publicly accessible lower level material would be a problem. It really would only take about 20 people dedicated to starting the project, and each writing her favorite chapter.

As for the robot graders, until they can give partial credit, I fear them. My experience with them indicated that students’ abilities to write mathematically declined under their suzerain.

Posted by: Scott Carter on October 23, 2009 1:53 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

One reason that someone chooses to write a calculus text, for example, is because that person thinks that she can present the material better than anyone else.

I think this is inaccurate. One reason someone chooses to write, say, a calculus text, is money. We are talking about something on the order of $1,000,000. This is what a writer of a successful calculus book could make. Naturally if there is a popular free calculus text, such payouts will disappear and then fewer people will be tempted to make money by writing calculus books. And then we could expect people to start writing books because they think they could do a better job.

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on October 23, 2009 4:28 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

I strongly suspect the 1 million figure would only apply to textbooks that are for material like calculus that’s required for almost any science degree.
The two people I knew who had actually written textbooks for the more common “specialised” material (covering what would be undergraduate material for a UK mathematics degree, which as I understand it puts them at advanced undergrate/masters level for more diffuse american style degrees) made just about enough to cover “mid-level UK private school” fees, which is somewhere between 10 and 20 thousand pounds per annum. Probably on an hourly rate better than their actual pay (as mid-level Cambridge academics) but given the amount of effort not amusingly lucrative. In more applied areas of mathematics and certainly computer science and electrical engineering you’d get a significantly better effort/reward ratio from doing consulting.

As mentioned above, I’m inclined toward the prestige/resume as a stronger motivation for almost all textbook writers (in addition to the “I can present this material better than existing textbooks” motivation).

Posted by: bane on October 23, 2009 5:20 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Silly “semi-homophone” typo: “not amusing lucrative” should be “not amazingly lucrative”.

Posted by: bane on October 23, 2009 5:26 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

John said “Why? Thanks to the lack of state funding, we can no longer afford for homework to be graded by hand in lower-level courses.”

When I was in grad school eons ago, I graded many hundreds of exams as a TA for lower level courses, and I don’t think I was paid extra for that above the classroom teaching. Admittedly, it is onerous and mind numbing doing this sort of thing at the same time you are trying to complete your own final problem sets, but isn’t this job still just dropped in the laps of the TAs?

Posted by: Richard on October 23, 2009 3:32 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Did you grade the homework? Our TA’s and faculty grade lots of exams, but we used to rely on undergraduate ‘graders’ for grading the homework.

The graders could earn a bit of money this way… but gradually the amount of money budgeted for this purposed declined, and now it’s declined $0 for all the courses up to and including multivariable calculus — the courses that account for roughly 90% of the homework. Now the students in these lower-level courses pay for Webassign to grade their homework.

I could volunteer to grade my own homework, but I only have the energy to grade some proofs and problems that involve drawing (since Webassign doesn’t do that). Especially since my own salary was cut 10% this year.

Recently Deborah Simons of the New York Times interviewed Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California. A sample:

Deborah Simons: Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs”, to use a buzzword.

Mark Yudof: Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.

DS: The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?

MY: Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.

DS: How did you get into education?

MY: I don’t know. It’s all an accident. I thought I’d go work for a law firm.

DS: Some people feel you could close the U.C. budget gap by cutting administrative salaries, including your own.

MY: The stories of my compensation are greatly exaggerated.

DS: When you began your job last year, your annual compensation was reportedly $828,000.

MY: It actually was $600,000 until I cut my pay by $60,000. So my salary is $540,000, but it gets amplified because people say, “You have a pension plan”.

Posted by: John Baez on October 23, 2009 3:56 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

MY: Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.

I want to make a joke, but I can’t decide if he sounds more like George Bush or the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

Anyway, I guess the Fresh Prince of UC is my boss, but he sounds ridiculous in this interview.

I don’t understand pension all that well, but it seems pretty reasonable to include pension as part of the compensation someone is receiving. I guess the coarse difference being he doesn’t have that money as liquid assets. The finer points I am sure I do not understand.

On another note, although I am not a TA, I am a graduate student. I also work very hard for very little money. I am not complaining; I love my job. However, I have to ask Richard, when did TA’s become a dumping ground for free labor? And, why were you ok with this when you were a graduate student? Maybe we can come up with a slightly less insulting solution. Personally, I prefer research and I expect to be paid for my work.

Posted by: Alex Hoffnung on October 23, 2009 5:48 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Your salary was cut by 10%? I wonder who makes this kind of decision and for what reasons?

Posted by: Tim vB on October 24, 2009 11:45 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

I wonder who makes this kind of decision

Apparently the President of the University; in the interview above, he writes ‘I cut my pay by $60,000’. See how even he took a 10% pay cut? He feels your pain!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 24, 2009 5:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

So the president of the university can do that just like that? I’m a bit confused because I don’t know much about these matters, but I think in most European countries only the government could do that (the equivalent for California would be the Governor), and then only for all tenured professors for all universities by the same amount. And for most jobs outside of academia the only way to lower the salary would be to fire and rehire with a new contract.

Posted by: Tim vB on October 24, 2009 5:54 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

So the president of the university can do that just like that? I’m a bit confused because I don’t know much about these matters, but I think in most European countries only the government could do that (the equivalent for California would be the Governor), and then only for all tenured professors for all universities by the same amount. And for most jobs outside of academia the only way to lower the salary would be to fire and rehire with a new contract.

Yeah, that sounds like Europe! It is not the United States.

For most jobs in most States, the boss has complete control over salaries and can hire and fire for any reason (except race, color, nationality, sex, veteran status, age between 40 and 65, and disability that can be reasonably accomodated) or for no reason at all. If you have a contract, then that's another matter, of course, but most workers don't have a contract. To be sure, the worker can quit at any time for any reason or none, so that's fair, isn't it? <g>

That said, I don't think that the President of the University really has the authority to lower salaries at will, although it seems as if it was his idea and he's taking the credit and blame. And I consider it only a good thing that the Governor of California doesn't have that authority either!

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 24, 2009 6:25 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Tim vB wrote:

Your salary was cut by 10%?

Yeah, and not just mine: it’s not like my pay was cut for wasting too much time blogging.

All University of California faculty and staff are taking pay cuts between 4% and 10%, with the higher-paid ones taking bigger percentage pay cuts.

President Yudof calls these pay cuts ‘furloughs’. A furlough is when you get paid less for working less. I’m being forced to take about 26 ‘furlough days’ a year. But there’s a catch: faculty can’t take these ‘furloughs’ on days that they teach! So it’s not really a furlough.

In deciding to do this, Yudof and the Regents of the University of California went against the recommendation of the Academic Council, which represents faculty. The Academic Council said it was “important to send a message that budget cuts do in fact negatively impact the University’s instructional mission”.

The point is that when the legislature cut the amount of money budgeted for other agencies, like the Department of Motor Vehicles, those agencies actually took real furloughs. Now there are days when people can’t get their driver’s licenses! And so maybe the taxpayers and legislators will connect the dots and see that their tax money is actually used for something. But President Yudof and the Regents have decided not provide that sort of feedback at the University of California. And so, our budget may be cut more.

That’s the background behind these annoyingly flippant remarks by Yudof:

Deborah Simons: Already professors on all 10 U.C. campuses are taking required “furloughs”, to use a buzzword.

Mark Yudof: Let me tell you why we used it. The faculty said “furlough” sounds more temporary than “salary cut,” and being president of the University of California is like being manager of a cemetery: there are many people under you, but no one is listening. I listen to them.

DS: The word “furlough,” I recently read, comes from the Dutch word “verlof,” which means permission, as in soldiers’ getting permission to take a few days off. How has it come to be a euphemism for salary cuts?

MY: Look, I’m from West Philadelphia. My dad was an electrician. We didn’t look up stuff like this. It wasn’t part of what we did. When I was growing up we didn’t debate the finer points of what the word “furlough” meant.

Tim vB wrote:

I wonder who makes this kind of decision and for what reasons?

California is having severe financial problems, in part because of various stupid decisions. The legislature voted to cut the budget of the University by California by $813 million dollars. The University of California Board of Regents approved a plan proposed by President Yudof to deal with this as follows:

  • About $180 million in salary cuts.
  • About $200 million in increased fees to students.
  • About $100 million in refinanced debt (i.e., putting off the problem) and other tricks.
  • About $300 million in extra budget cuts: the individual UC campuses have to figure out how to absorb these budget cuts.

That may be a reasonable way to handle a bad situation, but I wish they’d either give us actual furloughs or admit that they’re giving us pay cuts.

Posted by: John Baez on October 25, 2009 2:35 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Thanx, that explains a lot. IMHO you should rather get a raise for waisting so much time blogging, and I think most readers of your blogs will agree with me :-)

Posted by: Tim vB on October 26, 2009 9:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Now the students in these lower-level courses pay for Webassign to grade their homework.

So they have to pay an extra fee on top of tuition? Like a lab fee?

Posted by: Toby Bartels on October 24, 2009 5:33 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

They can either pay for Webassign when buying their textbook, or buy it online here. It’s not like a lab fee, because the money goes straight to the company that sells Webassign.

Posted by: John Baez on October 25, 2009 1:54 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

In the interests of flagging up good behaviour, I’d like to mention two online linear algebra books:

Linear Algebra

and

A First Course in Linear Algebra

Both are completely free, both in cost and license. I’m using them for my course this semester because I felt that the book we used last year wasn’t a good fit for the course and I didn’t like the thought of the students paying out loads of money for a book that didn’t help them.

The course itself is not exactly modelled on either of those two books, but then there isn’t a single text book that would fit this course (comprising, as it does, bits of metric space theory, linear algebra, and Hilbert spaces). So we have those two free books, some other resources, and I have a wiki (Instiki, naturally) for publishing supplementary notes as and when needed.

Another option is ebooks in libraries. I don’t know exactly how many copies students can have out as far as the license is concerned, but technically there should be no problem in having several. Our library has Sheldon Axler’s Down with Determinants; but as I say, I don’t know how many copies can be signed out simultaneously.

Posted by: Andrew Stacey on October 23, 2009 7:22 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Webassign

I heard a rumor that someone here at UIUC ran an experiment comparing the performance of students who used web-graded homework with those whose homework was graded by humans with those whose homework was simply not graded. Rumor has it that students with web-graded assignments did worse than those whose homework was simply not graded. Perhaps UCR can save some money and “improve educational outcomes” at the same time.

Posted by: Eugene Lerman on October 23, 2009 4:34 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

Graphing and proofs aren’t immune from automated grading. Graphing problems typically consist of setting up axes, plotting and connecting points, drawing asymptotes, and adding text. All of these are straightforward things to enable and check in an applet.

Writing an interactive proof checker is no harder than writing a chess game, and using it can be just as entertaining if it’s done right. Puzzle games like Block’N’Roll are addictive, and have no more structure than a proof in high-school geometry class.

The paper Building a Princess Saving App talks about why games are fun and how people learn; teaching kids to do proofs seems like the ideal scenario for this kind of thing.

Also, it can be tremendous fun to grade answers if it’s made into a game. Louis Von Ahn at CMU founded gwap.com and peekaboom.org that use games to solve hard computational problems, like image classification—and people spend thousands of hours doing this voluntarily. Grading math homework is certainly no harder.

I bet someone could design a system where it’s fun to do the homework and fun to grade–so much so that people would wish they could spend more time doing it.

Posted by: Mike Stay on October 23, 2009 5:38 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

End-users; Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

One year ago I was teaching high school Chemistry, Biology, Anatomy and Physiology. My homework assignments drew from a mix of easier textbook stuff, and challenging excerpts from Science, and Nature, and ripped still hot from the Web. One leader of dissident students explicitly complained to me: “Why can’t you just say ‘do problems 1-3 from chapter 17’ the way the other teachers do?”

Posted by: Jonathan Vos Post on October 23, 2009 6:15 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

I was under the impression that you should just infringe copyright and download the book for free.

Posted by: Harry Gindi on January 7, 2010 6:37 AM | Permalink | Reply to this

Re: Cheaper Online Textbooks?

I was under the impression that you should just infringe copyright and download the book for free.

Well, that's what I often do. But it is illegal, which leads to some problems:

  • Even casual copyright infringement carries a small risk, but helping people to infringe can amount to criminal conspiracy, for which you could get into a lot of trouble if you're big enough to be noticed. An instructor who encourages students to download illegally puts the university itself in liability.
  • Infringing a government-granted monopoly is nothing like robbery, as should be obvious to anybody who thinks about it. But many people have been brought up with respect for the law, and they'll consider it immoral by virtue of being illegal. IMO, that's balderdash too, but it's pretty well ingrained in some rather intelligent people that I know; it becomes a political (perhaps even religious) issue.

So cheap and legal textbooks are still very useful to have.

Posted by: Toby Bartels on January 7, 2010 10:57 PM | Permalink | Reply to this

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