Saturday, June 16, 2012

The textbook scam…and a radical idea from a college lecturer

Years ago, a colleague, an electrical engineer, was angered by the speciousness of his daughter’s elementary school textbooks. The textbook cited incorrect data about temperatures of various color stars. It was apparent, from a quick read, that the writers merely randomly assigned temperature ranges to the various star colors. Bad science, and he was justifiably angry.

Fast forward a few years. A fellow technical writer interviewed at a well known publisher of elementary school textbooks. She described the office as a sweatshop, saying, “Whoever was left standing at the end of the interview got the job.”

Now I work in higher education, as the coordinator and advisor in a graduate engineering program. Even at this rarefied level, the scam continues. Professors revise a textbook, making minor changes, and thereby rendering the previous edition obsolete. And thereby quashing the resale market. (Students cannot sell back their books at the end of the semester.) And thereby requiring students in the next semester to pay top dollar for the new edition.

Not insignificant. The average price of a new graduate-level engineering textbook is $230. And so it goes.

What a scam!

Sounding like a chapter that should be in Steven Leavitt’s Freakonomics, to make things work, textbook publishers escalate the ante by sending to professors—gratis— evaluation copies (also called desk copies), feeding the frenzy by enticing profs to prescribe the new drug…um, I mean specify the new textbook. (Leavitt himself is a professor of economics at University of Chicago.)
Stop the madness!

A lecturer (Ph.D., mechanical engineering) proposed a revolutionary idea: make his courses textbook-neutral.


In other words, it would be the student’s responsibility to learn the general principles, using whatever textbook or method they chose. Let’s face it: the concepts of thermodynamics and fluid dynamics have not changed much in the past 100 years. Even modern physics (quantum mechanics and physics of solid state) dates to the 1930s at the latest.

In all fairness, some faculty eschew textbooks altogether, instead preparing class notes for purchase.
And graduate students, at least, spend at much more time teaching themselves concepts in early morning or late evening study groups or alone as they spend in class. Even undergraduates are left to their own devices. (Several undergraduate computer science students lamented privately, “I did not spend all this money to go to [enormous state research university] to teach myself computer science.)

The plan—
  • Empower students to learn fundamental concepts by whatever method they choose, even an old textbook.
  • Reinforce the concepts in class
  • Give relevant homework
  • Administer fair examinations
  • Treat students fairly
  • Don’t treat students as cash cows.

No comments: