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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Seth Godin's Textbook Rant

Well known and widely respected marketing guru Seth Godin published an entry on his blog this week entitled “Textbook Rant." He notes that he received more comments on this post than any other he has ever made. Since he got such a reaction, we can probably expect him to start publishing more on the topic, or being more vocal on it elsewhere. Here are a few of the “quotable quotes” from the piece:

  • This industry deserves to die. It has extracted too much time and too much money and wasted too much potential. We can do better. A lot better.
  • As far as I can tell, assigning a textbook to your college class is academic malpractice.
  • Any professor of intro marketing who is assigning a basic old-school textbook is guilty of theft or laziness.
  • The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it's part of their job, remember?) When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you're done. You just saved your intro marketing class about $15,000. Every semester.

Among the responses, I thought this comment related to stores was interesting: The textbook industry does need to die. Especially the privatization of textbook and textbook resale stores...

Rants like these are not uncommon. It would be pretty difficult for anyone involved with the textbook industry to deny that as an industry we have problems. Like health care, autos, or banking. As a colleague of mine observed in response to Seth's "simple solution":

While in theory this all sounds great, but do all professors (or adjunct professors) really have the expertise, time, desire, etc... to "devise" pages or chaperettes and for that matter, who ensures the validity and accuracy of the content? While technology will certainly allow for "anything goes" it would seem like there still needs to be some "control and validation" of content to be taught and that a college or university would not want to create an environment of the "wild wild west".

My opinion is similar to this articulation. I believe Seth's comment is a fairly over-simplified interpretation of what faculty are “paid to do” as part of their jobs. Many faculty do not have the expertise to write a textbook in the style he is asking for – or even if they do, there is little or no reward for most faculty to spend their time in the way he asks. The example of the faculty member who made over $20M – I am pretty sure that is the very rare exception. If they want tenure or promotion, or recognition within their field, that time is better spent on research related publication, or grant work, or even working directly with students in the class.

I always viewed the textbook more as a reference supplement. I typically made it optional. I then usually picked a set of more up-to-date articles or a professional book (depending on the course) which were the required readings. Some students really like having the reference textbook – and it can often cover topics I do not have time to cover in class, or provide additional examples or an alternative perspective. If I did have time to work on improving a course, I much preferred to spend that time finding better ways to use in-class time to maximum benefit, such as creating new active-learning approaches and exercises that would reinforce core concepts.

Writing chapterettes or entire chapters well takes time and research and is a very different skill set that many of us do not have. And frankly, that is not part of the faculty member’s job per se (and certainly not before one is tenured). The accrediting process also typically looks at what books or readings faculty assign in different courses as one means of ensuring that the curriculum is delivering on what is expected. If 20 of us are teaching different sections of the same course, it also helps to ensure some standardization among courses. Or, if I am teaching a course that builds on a prior course, or have to approve a course a student took at another institution, knowing what textbook was used in the prior course gives me some understanding of the approach and content the faculty member in the course was likely to have followed.

I also share the concern about the control and validation process. Faculty already get in trouble for inserting their biases into classes. Without the editorial checks and balances, or review process, how are standards of quality monitored? “Free” does not necessarily mean “equal” or “better.” I think there are some good approaches emerging out there, but worry that we might “throw the baby out with the bathwater” in an over-fixation on price.

As a former student (with 11 years of college education), a former faculty member, a former administrator, and now as someone in the textbook industry more directly, I think we would all agree that the textbook industry has some significant problems when it comes to price, and perhaps some additional issues related to value. It is a tough challenge. Yes, many textbooks are out of date because fields are developing far more rapidly today and the old processes do not work so well. Yes, there are faculty who do not do their job, or their students, justice when it comes to selecting course materials. Yes, the industry needs to change – die? I don’t think so. But change? Yes. There are a number of creative ways in which educational publishing could reinvent itself to continue to produce relevant and current texts, and perhaps at lower cost – but such change will not come quickly or easily. It may be outside organizations and influencers who drive a new generation of course material content. That will likely start with open educational resources (OER), and eventually evolve into new revenue-based models as products mature and the value of having enterprises to assist with the process resurfaces – since there are limitations to true OER as well. Organizations like Flat World Knowledge, Connexions, MERLOT, and others are examples of how such organizations are needed if OER is to be successful. As such organizations emerge there is an eventual need to support the organization, which means revenue. That could come directly or indirectly, but eventually it must come or the organizations are unlikely to be sustainable for the long term.

Okay – I will stop my textbook rebuttal rant there.

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