Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Using textbooks in an online class

We've had a lot of textbook problems this semester. The campus bookstore moved in January, and they seem to have had a bunch of order errors, from lost orders to books showing up at Yale not SCSU. Plus the usual problems of students not being willing or able to spend that much money right at the beginning of the semester. Even online students seem to be having greater difficulty than usual actually getting a hold of required texts (slow shipping? bad timing? backorders?) Online students do have one advantage--online ordering is usually cheaper than buying in a campus bookstore (about 15% for the books I've checked so far.) Of course, you have to wait to get it, and express shipping eliminates any price advantage.

Other people must be having the same sort of trouble, because there have been a flurry of posts and articles about online textbooks, and the use of textbooks in general. First I saw an announcement about a new publishing platform, Freeload Press*. They publish textbooks as free ebooks and inexpensive ($25-35) paperbacks. Right now their catalog includes just a few accounting and finance texts. The books will have ads, but the publisher promises no "interference with the integrity of the content". They are quite new (launched Feb 2005), so longevity is a question, but it's an intriguing concept for an instructor with an idea for a textbook.

I also saw another notice from WikiBooks. WikiBooks is an offshoot of Wikipedia, and follows the same philosophy of community editing. Books are freely editable by anyone willing to register, so you need to keep an eye on the content. I would give the same advice as with Wikipedia, that users learn to take advantage of the revision history functions in the Wiki engine. In fact, if you created/used a WikiBook as a textbook you might want to link to a particular revision date, while explaining the editing function to your students. Or, this might be an opportunity to really engage the students in learning, by having them create their own textbook. A similar site is WikiTextbook in the UK.

The CHMINF-L listserv has been discussing the readability of e-books with regards to the future of libraries. Are online textbooks worth creating if no one wants to read them? (Even if they are cheaper?)

And that brought up a thought-provoking piece by Rob Reynolds on XplanaZine, The Relevance of Textbooks. Why do we use textbooks? Are they merely collections of relevant texts, which could be gathered in some other way (like a online reading list)? Do they structure your course? (And does this mean that the publisher is structuring your course for you?)

The "crisis" in college textbooks could be seen as an opportunity for faculty to take control of their course materials back from the textbook publishers. With organizations like Pearson Custom Publishing* for collecting previously published content, the proliferation of online, linkable materials like WikiBooks, our full text databases and electronic reserves, or open access materials, the power of courseware like WebCT to allow creation of digital texts that include multimedia, faculty now have a great variety of tools to create and/or assemble their own course materials.

If you are thinking of "banishing the textbook" from your course, be sure to read "Toss the Text" from Edutopia, and the accompanying article "No Books, No Problem". While it's aimed at pre-college teachers, a lot of the same issues are true for college instructors: organization, copying/scanning, the time it will take to find (and later update) materials, etc.

As a final note for faculty: as you contemplate the migration from WebCT Campus Edition to WebCT Vista, you may be dismayed by the idea of moving your course content. Now is the time to start thinking about reorganizing your courses, so maybe it's time to think about your textbooks, too.

*I often link to specific commercial sites as examples. This is not an endorsement or recommendation, and if I have any 'conflict of interest' I will state it.


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