I'm amazed that universities ALLOW their professors to make payment-required textbook-tied online exercises part of their courses.
You're already paying tuition, you shouldn't have to pay extra just to do the homework. That's insane. It's no different from having to pay additional money to take the midterm.
After all, the professors and publishers make money from this, not the university. As far as I can tell, it can only reflect badly on a university -- so why don't they have policies in place against this? Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like a blatant abuse of power for financial gain on the part of professors.
I worked with a professor who got together with a few others and created their own digital course content.
This was an interactive package of notes/exercises/self-marking quizzes on the course content.
They sold it for about a quarter of the cost over the previous textbook for the course, and divvied up the proceeds at the end of each year.
I asked about the legality/morality of it, and he replied with 'it's better content, we charge much less, and turn a blind eye to sharing'.
His attitude could be boiled down to : the publishers are the ones making all the money, so I'm going to go direct and cut them out, plus endeavour to bring the content directly to the students.
It wasn't an online solution because the university had some (outdated if you ask me) prohibition on online only content, in case there were students who spent periods where they didn't have access to an internet connection. (note, this was a while ago)
The guy was already independently rich from his side-business of consulting in his industry, so I tended to believe him that he wasn't really in it for the money, though he did want it to be at least revenue positive.
The whole area is ripe for disruption, but then education itself is fat target.
Absolutely agree with this. It's crazy. But if you only have to do it a few times, e.g., as a young undergraduate, you're unlikely to think about it much. You just pay the fees and think nothing of it. You've got other things to think about.
But if you got through some more rounds of education, then you might start to think. A professor that requires her students to buy a textbook she authored is something to think about.
What I found interesting in one of the degrees I got was that students did not even need the textbooks. The assignments and handouts were not tied to textbooks, though textbooks were certainly recommended and required as usual on the syllabi. So I decided not to buy any textbooks. I just used ones from the library. I learned more doing it this way than I ever did from mindlessly buying textbooks.
Still, the whole time I kept thinking, if every student tried this it would be unworkable. Professors did put materials, including texts, on reserve though, so "sharing" a copy of a text is not itself a crazy idea. Fortunately, few of my fellow students were keen to read the library's textbooks. As such, they were always readily available. I would routinely have about 7 texts checked out at any one time.
One of the things that kept the other students away from the library's textbook holdings was, I think, that they believed only the latest editions would be useful. Syllabi tell students to buy some specific edition of some textbook. And students, if they are fresh undergraduates, are very obedient. They will do as they are told.
But I found the dates on these texts mattered little. In some cases the best texts I found were "dated". But when you read lots of differenet texts, you get a much clearer picture of a subject area. And you can see the coverage as it has evolved. You can tell what's changed, and that itself is very useful knowledge. Now I'm absolutely hooked on this method of learning. I always seek out old texts as well as new ones.
The idea that "only the latest edition will work for this course" is another of the textbook publisher's little schemes. I'm sure they try to get faculty to use only the latest editions.
Interestingly, one can see the same dynamics played out in software. The hunger for the "new" thing, the bleeding edge, without any regard for history and how we got here. The obedience aspect is there too. To pick a random example, Microsoft tells people that they need Windows 8, and they obey. Little may have changed in 10-20-30-or-more years, the changes might be only cosmetic, but lots of people wouldn't know any different, because they focus only on what is considered "current". Like fresh undergraduates, they want to be told which edition to buy without ever thinking much about it.
Indeed I have noticed textbooks often only contain minor changes from version to version. In other cases, entire subject areas can change as research progresses. But sometimes the only way you get to know that is by looking at older texts.
The quantity of changes may be less relevant than the quality of the changes: i.e. did anything major change in this field in the last n number of years. With a closed source software program, like Windows, it's very difficult to assess the quality of the changes. All we see is the user interface.
There's a difference between a list of "new features" (staying with the Microsoft example) and being able to diff the source code against a previous version and evaulate the changes for yourself.
It's like the syllabus that says you need the latest version of the textbook but does not tell you why the previous version will not do.
Look at it this way: in "most cases" (whether it's software or textbooks), from version to version, there's more substance that stays the same than substance which changes.
Not sure about you but I'm a little wary of buying the latest version of an expensive textbook in order to gain a small number of reatively minor changes that I could easily identify, and take note of, by comparing the latest version with the previous one.
It is a bit surprising that universities allow this practice — not so much because textbook costs are unbundled from tuition (things have been that way for a while) but because textbook company kickbacks may now constitute substantial fraction of an instructor's salary.
In the short term, this setup helps universities keep their teaching costs low — they can pay instructors a lower base wage and let the instructors make up the difference in textbook-company kickbacks if their conscience allows. This kind of cost-cutting might be attractive in a scenario where instructors are more "contractors" (adjunct faculty) than "employees" or "the reason the university is here and more important than administrators" (tenured faculty).
Schools should soon realize that it's a bad idea for their employees to have another revenue stream and, essentially, another supervisor influencing how they do the same job.
Adjunct faculty are typically paid on a per-course-taught basis and can make as little as $400 per subject , although it's most common to see pay of about $1500–$2500 per subject. To pick one well-documented discipline in particular, psychology professors make a median of $2500 per subject taught at the graduate level .
This blog post guesses without giving evidence that the instructor may be making $5 off of each of his 250 students (who each paid $150 for a textbook), which would represent total textbook-company revenue of $1250.
To be sure, not all faculty are paid as poorly as adjuncts —  cites an estimate that adjunct faculty earn 26% less than tenured professors — but there is not a lot of money in teaching undergraduates, and for many kinds of instructors, textbook fees have the potential to become a substantial alternate revenue stream.
They sound what my uni called "bricks" - a bunch of licensed copies of reading material, all stapled together. They cost about $10-$50, as opposed to $50-$100 for a 101 text (note, this is Australia, the US has more expensive additions of textbooks for no good reason).
There are two kinds of bricks - draft textbooks, and collections of papers.
It's quite common to get a draft textbook as a brick one year, then laugh at the students the next year who pay for the textbook when it's finally published.
It seems a bit weird to publish a collection of papers as a textbook, especially at a low undergrad level, but I hear it's happening these days.
<I>It seems a bit weird to publish a collection of papers as a textbook, especially at a low undergrad level, but I hear it's happening these days.</I>
Took a macro-economics class at my local community college. One of the required texts was a collection of essays that the professor had written (much of it incoherent blabble but that's a different topic), collected into a 130-page paperback that looked like it might cost $3.99 at the local BN. Cost: $55. No copy available in the library.
Adjuncts do not generally write textbooks and get kickbacks for them. They choose one of the 'standard' textbooks, and use the online problem set for that book. They do this not because they get compensation for it, but because it's the path of least resistance.
I find it kind of sad that you would speculate like this, without any specific examples (let alone proof of a general trend!) about the motives of the adjuncts. :(
Hmm, my reading of the original blog post is perhaps a bit different than yours.
This post seems to provide evidence that people who do not traditionally write textbooks (not the top hundred faculty members in a field) are being afforded a new opportunity by textbook companies to "write a book", which either means "pick and choose some portions of the standard textbook" (discussed elsewhere in the comments) or "publish a 'course reader'-style collection of readings as a book" (discussed in this blog post).
It seems to me that this new opportunity also represents a new revenue stream for more faculty members than currently receive textbook kickbacks.
"this setup helps universities keep their teaching costs low — they can pay instructors a lower base wage"
It's a cost increase for students that's not as easily noticed as a "base" price increase in tuition. Which paying more to professors would require. As well as payroll taxes on the salary increase. So getting $1500 directly from publishers the same $1500 from the University costs extra in additional payroll costs (and then gets multiplied by any salary percentage increase in future years as well).
This is also somewhat analogous to what some elementary schools are doing (sorry no citation) with requiring parents to buy school supplies that were previously provided by the schools. It's a way of cost shifting that allows you to pass a tax that isn't recognized as a tax increase.
Other example may be an auto mfg. only raising the price of a new model slightly but removing and making certain features options, options that the majority of buyers will end up adding on anyway. (If the price of the car were higher many people wouldn't enter the showroom at all.)
Universities are in the business of making money, not education.
I worked for a company in 2004 that was a spinoff of a professor's project to create randomizable equations linked to a text book. Students would get a unique key/ID from their textbook, and log into our system to take practice exams and work on examples. Each question would be unique, and hopefully pedagogically correct.
Textbook publishers loved this idea, especially the fact that it required a unique key for each student. We had all of the major college textbook publishers as customers, either using our hosted system or licensing our software to use on their own web servers. If I recall correctly, we charged around $20-30 per student.
Eventually we were acquired, but I assume the software is still being "marketed" to the students.
The professor's project was funded by a DoE grant, and then he turns around and commercializes it with the explicit approval of the university.
Some universities take it a step further and include the cost of textbooks in tuition. Be glad that isn't happening globally. That's the worst case scenario here - students are just billed for course materials without having any say in the matter.
Note that their stats about how rentals save students $1160 a year are sort of BS. On books where renting saves you a lot of money over the full retail price (which no one ever pays anyway), you can usually just buy the book outright for the same amount on Amazon (and then sell it back when youre done for a ridiculously lower total cost of ownership).
Just come out with a new edition each year where you move the problems around so that people have to buy the new textbook and cannot buy used. And in the occasional case where that does not work, change the title of the book occasionally so that students do not know which second hand book to buy.
I had only one course that I can remember where we had to buy a published textbook written by the professor teaching the course. He apologized for this up front, and used the royalties (and most likely a bit more) to throw a small party at the end of the course.
Most of the time when we had professor written material we only paid $10-20 to cover the cost of having a pdf printed and bound by the university print shop.