Archive forEducation

The End of the Textbook

End of March 2008

What would be the situation of a $5 billion a year industry that had a product that hadn’t substantially changed for decades, a product that over that same span had been increasing in price at twice the rate of inflation, and operated in a market where they could be almost completely deaf to the opinions of the primary consumers. Pretty dire, right?

Wrong. If it’s the college textbook publishing industry, these problems have caused some discomfort, but they haven’t changed the industry and they haven’t affected the bottom line. Publishers have a captive, reliable and slightly growing audience from year to year. Consolidation into four corporate giants has reduced the overall level of competition. The industry is unique in that the consumer in not the adopter: students buy the increasingly expensive books that professors recommend, but the professors are immune from the pain of rising costs.

It gets worse. Used books sales, on the web and at college bookstores, have eaten into the publishers’ profit. This has in turn spurred an arms race, where publishers put out editions every couple of years, and shrink-wrap the books with ancillaries like CDs and software, all to try and force the instructors to adopt only the most “recent” materials. There is little or no price pressure on publishers because they are marketing to the professors, and the professors either don’t care, or they rationalize the situation by saying that students “have to buy a book anyway.” Publishers also give professor adoption rewards like DVD sets of TV shows and expensive software. These amount to little more than bribes, but to get 100 adoptions of a $100 textbook generates $10,000 in revenue so a $100 bribe is just good business.

This situation has recently attracted the unwelcome attention from student groups and Congress. The average student spends about $900 per year on textbooks, which is about 20% of tuition and fees at a four-year public institution, so this is a substantial cost for students and their parents. The GAO investigated textbook prices in 2005, and politicians in nearly 30 states have conducted hearings or raised the issue for public debate. The grassroots Student Public Interest Groups have become vigorous critics of the textbook industry, pointing out that books are often much cheaper in Europe, noting that very few professors use the bundled extra materials, and that new editions are not needed on such a rapid timescale. At the GAO hearing, one congressman sardonically pointed out that new calculus texts were churned out every few years, but he “didn’t think that calculus had changed much since the time of Newton.”

Where does the textbook dollar go? The Association of College Bookstores creates and updates a useful chart. Of every dollar a student spends, 11 cents goes to the authors, 66 cents goes to the publisher, and 23 cents goes to the college bookstore. The royalty rate for authors is standard and, after all, without the authors, there would be no authoritative material to help students study. The publishers gets 2/3, the lion’s share, and 25 cents go for marketing and administrative costs, which seems like pure overhead. The bookstore only takes 1/4, but they are not blameless in this game. Bookstores buy back used copies at 25 cents on the dollar but then sell for half price so they can make a 25% margin by selling the same books over and over again. That’s pure gravy, so their claim of altruism to students rings hollow since obviously they are acting as profit-skimming brokers and there would be no textbooks if only the bookstores sold them.

My perspective on this subject is as an insider and an outsider. I wrote textbook for a decade before leaving the game, and now I have college age kids myself so know from first-hand experience about the big bills. I quit writing textbooks because the industry was becoming steadily more impersonal—small publishers with long-time editors were consumed by conglomerates that put the money into marketing. The authors were being increasingly treated like paid help rather than creators of content and pedagogy and full partners in the publishing process. For me, it became a grind and not much fun. Plus, I note that I still drive a 15-year-old car; very few instructors who write books do more than add a modest supplement to their income.

What does the future hold? It would seem that in the age of information and the Internet, printed books are an anachronism. People do like to read, and students still like to mark up their books with highlighting and notes, but they also all have laptops and could easily migrate to electronic alternatives. The textbook is still in rude health but it shows signs of terminal illness. Alternative and a glimpse at the future will be covered in a future post.

Comments off

The End of the University

 Middle of March 2008

When Plato founded the Academy in 385 B.C., he had no idea that the concept of the university would permeate the civilized world. Until the nineteenth century universities were religious-based European institutions that catered only to the elite, and taught a narrow range of disciplines ill-suited to people who might have to learn a trade. By the twentieth century, the secular German model had propagated to other countries and now nearly half of the population of industrialized countries experience tertiary education. 

American universities are victims of their own success. Serious and high level career employment is almost impossible without a university degree; it’s become the high school diploma of the twenty first century. Research universities have become bloated and bureaucratic and the quaint tradition of tenure means that the professoriate is almost immune from market forces. As a result, students and their families can be gouged by tuition that’s rising at twice the rate of inflation. This is justified by the extra earning power that a college education still conveys. However, the bang for the buck declines when students find themselves in huge lecture classes that use old Germanic teaching methods, and when so few classrooms are informed by the latest research on pedagogy. 

The gravy days are nearly over. Parents and government regulators are starting to draw lines in the sand on further tuition increases. Regents and university administrators are demanding that their highly paid research faculty pay more attention to teaching, and to the undergraduates who pay most of the bills. Students are demanding that universities be responsive to the changing workplace; forty years ago a graduate would have typically a single job, today the number is six or seven. The largest high school graduating class will be on 2010. Thereafter, enrollments will decline and the landscape will transition into a buyer’s market. 

I teach at a large Land Grant university with 40,000 undergraduates and thousands of different classes. It’s primarily a residential campus, and the first year away from home, that time of roiling hormones and excess and experimentation, is still a rite of passage for many 18-year-olds. However, the percentage of adults or non-traditional learners in U.S. colleges has grown steadily, from 15% of students in 1990 to over 50% in 2004. The 18-year-old freshman fresh away from home is now a minority. 

The informal sector of higher education is the only one that will grow in the next decade. The graying of American and the spryness of all those retired people means that lifelong education will be more than a catchphrase. Over 100 million people, 50% of all adults, now enroll in a college course in any 12-month period, an increase of 35% since 1991. Another 40 million adults participate in courses occasionally for personal interest. The older students have a lot of disposable income so their preferences and their spending patterns matter. 

Technology is also transforming the landscape of the university. You might not know it to visit a campus like mine, where most large classes are still taught in the old-fashioned way, by lecturing, and where the use of computers and classroom responders and other learner-centered tools is still rare. At its worst, this is a pitiful mode of transmission of information, little better than babysitting. Even at its best, it is inefficient and poorly suited to the way students actually learn.

The biggest change wrought by technology is the erosion of the sense of place. Distance learning began with the growth of the postal service and correspondence courses in the nineteenth century. Britain’s Open University was established in 1969; with very little fanfare it has grown to 180,000 students enrolled worldwide. The rapidly growing, for-profit University of Phoenix in the U.S. has 250,000 students spread over 79 campuses. These universities cater to vocational needs and they offer classes when working people need them, or they offer online learning anytime, anyplace. 

The wired and wireless Internet, and the growth of bandwidth sufficient to deliver video, are creating a situation where the classroom experience can be simulated online. Add to that immersive technologies like Second Life and game-play learning, and the need to sit in a classroom will dissipate. Adult learners will use video on demand to view lectures, tools like Wikipedia instead of a library, and discussion boards and wikis to discuss and collaborate with their fellow students. It sounds detached and austere but it’s already the way most teenagers learn and interact. 

Does all this presage the end of the university? Not necessarily. The jeremiads have been written before and been found to be premature. The cultural heritage that posits years at university as a rite of passage and maturation will not go away overnight. The technology that facilitates distance education will have a lurching and painful learning curve. The corps of disembodied learners will grow steadily but not dramatically. And Plato got one thing exactly right when he founded the Academy in an olive grove outside Athens. He employed the Socratic dialog, the best method ever developed for challenging ideas and homing in on the truth. The virtual university of the mid-twenty-first century will discard this at its peril.


Comments off

The Wonderful World of Wikipedia

Middle of February 2008

To 99% of the population, Wikipedia has become wallpaper, a free source of information so useful and ubiquitous that it’s uninteresting. To academicians, however, the idea of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit is anathema. It sounds like a recipe for misinformation and opinion dressed as facts. They worry about the blind leading the blind.

This criticism was always overdone. Head to head comparisons show that Wikipedia is marginally less accurate and reliable than Microsoft’s Encarta and Britannica Online but the difference is unlikely to be noticeable to the average user. Occasionally a journalist has “salted” Wikipedia with errors or falsehoods and complained that they persist. But that’s only true if the problems are in rarely-visited byways; on average a deliberate error lasts just a day. The truth is that several thousand dedicated Wikipedians and hundreds of thousands of occasional editors keep the resource remarkably free of major problems.

The worst hotspots occur where you might imagine, in articles that deal with politics or contentious social issues like abortion. A more subtle and insidious form of bias comes from corporations or individuals editing articles out of self-interest, financial or personal. To deal with this, the architects can lock down articles on contentious issues or require the editors to reveal themselves and disclose conflict of interest. In many technical and esoteric fields, the quality is very high. I’ve found only a few minor errors in the hundred or so astronomy articles that I’ve read. After all who would vandalize an article on stellar nucleosynthesis, even if they knew how? Another complaint concerns the proportionality and balance of a resource where the article on Brittany Spears is two-thirds of the length of the article on Albert Einstein. So what? If the information on Einstein is correct, why should we cavil at inclusion of the numbing details of Brittany’s life, as long as they’re also accurate.

Wikipedia has become so ubiquitous as a one-stop shop for information that it’s turned the 800-pound gorilla called Google into its tame poodle. I entered 100 words or phrases that a student might use in their studies, ranging from “Napoleon” to “subjunctive” to “magnetic field,” and Wikipedia was only outside the top three results 10% of the time. This extraordinary result means that the giant search engines have largely become proxy search tools for the Wikipedia web site. It also points to Wikipedia’s Achilles heel: the lack of any consistent hierarchy for the information. Articles are assigned to categories with as many as 22 levels, but a third of the articles aren’t categorized, and classifiers can’t keep up with the rapid growth of the resource.

Articles on major topics were written years ago, so time serves to hone the information and weed out the diminishing number of errors. Wikipedia is growing laterally. Most of the new articles populate a long tail of obscure topics and obscure people. The fact that few people will care about such articles is beside the point; they’re all there in one web location and nobody will every have to create that information again. The other thing Wikipedia has going for it is currency. News is updated almost instantly and journalists have become agitated at this competition from rank amateurs. Articles on major topics also get “churned” to ensure currency, a process that’s impossible in the standard model of publishing.

Wikipedia is also becoming less monotone. Foreign language articles are being added faster than articles in English, and 250 languages are represented. In addition to the 2.2 million articles, the resource has over a million images and many useful maps, charts and tables. Unknown to most users, there is an effort to create structured data tables on many topics, so that information can be retrieved by a structured query akin to natural language. This is a step in the direction of the semantic web envisaged by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the Internet.

Nobody foresaw the spontaneous creation of such a wonderful free resource in a context where the web was being increasingly dominated by commerce. The sense of community embodied by Wikipedia is inspiring, and that alone is enough to forgive its faults. Like a living entity, Wikipedia will continue to grow and adapt and evolve in surprising ways.

Comments off