Content Conundrums

Earlier this semester, our excellent library staff released results from a survey on students’ perceptions of textbook costs. Some of the findings:
  • 79 percent said they had not purchased a required textbook because of cost.
  • 19 percent said textbook costs had caused them to take fewer courses.
  • 84 percent thought that free, open-access textbooks benefit them academically, with 66 percent saying that they are “very helpful.”

I’ve mentioned this before: as a first-generation college student from a lower-middle class background, I am sensitive to the costs of college for today’s students. And I avoid assigning reading material that is terribly written because I emphasize the importance of good writing to my students. The vast majority of commercially-available textbooks — at least for the subjects that I teach — fail on both cost and writing quality. And though Open Educational Resources (OERs) are free, they can still be junk stylistically.

Sometimes I assign trade or mass market paperbacks. They are much less expensive than textbooks, and they do better at embedding concepts in a narrative context, which makes information easier for students to understand and remember. But their perspective can be very narrow, leading to rapid obsolescence, especially journalists’ book-length treatments of their field reportage.

Chopping paperbacks into assignment-sized sections can also be difficult. Contrast Evicted by Matthew Desmond with Poor Economics by Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo. The former is a brilliant 400+ page ethnography with a complex cast of characters, while the latter gives a concise chapter-by-chapter illustration of different principles in development economics. While I regard both books as extremely worthy, Evicted is just harder for me to use.

Often digital content allows me to bypass these problems, but I typically curate it myself. To avoid Error 404 Not Found and paywalls, I began clipping webpages with Evernote. Each course got its own Evernote folder. I would put the link to the appropriate folder in my syllabus. Recently though I’ve been noticing increased use of formatting and multimedia that Evernote — or at least the free version of it — doesn’t capture.

So I’m returning to my past practice of just embedding URLs in my syllabi. The majority of my digital content comes from publications like The New York Times, which has been around since 1851. It isn’t going to suddenly disappear. Plus the web archive is searchable, articles can be located without a specific URL. In effect the Times and publications like it have become digital repositories without third-party gatekeepers. And for students, a unlimited access subscription is far less expensive than a textbook.

The last option that deserves mention is a digitally-native web text, like the what’s offered by our friends at Soomo. Here the idea is a core text enhanced by additional readings, video, and interactive features. Curation duties are handled mainly by the publisher instead of the instructor, but content aggregation remains highly customizable. Production costs are lower, so students save money over traditional textbooks. Many instructors don’t have the inclination to create or collect all the content they need, and in this instance a web text is now often a better option than a traditional textbook.

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