Perhaps the worst post-secondary education scam of all time is the price of textbooks.
Students spend upwards of $200 for a hardcover textbook — only to find that they can’t sell it used the next year because a new edition has been issued, with extensive changes like a new cover or slightly different page numbers. Professors often pad their paycheques with textbook sales while also requiring their own students to buy the book.
Well, it seems that the online world is finally responding. A new U.S. website called Connextions uses the Creative Common license to allow students and professors to add and edit material as long as the original author is credited. Instead of organizing material in a linear manner, like textbooks that list topic after topic, the site presents content in smaller “modules” that are connected to larger courses or collections. This allows students and professors to access information according to topic.
According to its website, “Connexions is an environment for collaboratively developing, freely sharing, and rapidly publishing scholarly content on the Web.” Professors can also build reading packages by selecting material from various sources and adding their own, creating a custom-made, downloadable textbook for their students — for free!
The website was launched by Richard G. Baraniuk, an engineering professor at Rice University. It has received $6 million from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, according to an article in the New York Times. “We are changing textbook publishing from a pipeline to an ecosystem,” Baranuik told the Times. “If I had finished my own book, I would have finished a couple years ago,” he said. “It would have taken five years. It would have spent five years in print and sold 2,000 copies.” Since posting it online there have been 2.8 million page views and has been translated into Spanish.
Other online options include CourseSmart, a collaboration between six leading textbook publishers, and the Massachusett Institute of Technology’s OpenCourseWare. CourseSmart is a website where students can purchase digital copies of their textbooks straight from the publishers (ensuring the latest edition) at a discount of up to 50 per cent, which can still cost a student in the $100 range. 4,325 books are available in 741 courses and 109 disciplines. Students are given the option of downloading the book or reading online and are able to print sections. The website boasts that, so far, almost 95,000 trees have been saved.
OpenCourseWare is a site where virtually all of MIT’s course material is published. Anyone can download course outlines, assignments, reading material, lecture notes, exams, and videos of lectures, all for free.
Another great source of lectures is iTunes U, where users can download lectures from hundreds of colleges and universities, including top schools like Yale and Columbia. Listeners can learn about everything from philosophy 101 to material on yesterday’s economic strife on Wall Street, from high-level mathematics courses to a discussion of Harry Potter and the Holocaust.
When looking for good old fashioned paper version of textbooks, students are wise to think beyond the university bookstore. Amazon.ca and Chapters often offer new books for prices cheaper than used copies elsewhere, although shipping costs are extra. Abebook.com offers great prices on used books, but be sure to check the shipping costs.