Online textbooks: Saving money AND academic integrity!

Between producing supplemental book sections, needlessly updating editions, and incessantly lobbying teachers to assign particular textbooks, scholarly publishers have perfected the art of separating students from their money.

Of course, given the ever-increasing costs of tuition, it is pretty clear that universities seem to view students as little more than walking, talking ATMs. Under these circumstances, it's not really surprising that book companies would take the same approach.

Admittedly, textbooks have always been somewhat pricey. When I was a college student, there were some semesters in which I had to choose between books and food. In most cases, I would check my texts out from the library, but there were times when I had to resort to sitting in the stacks of the college bookstore, my notebook on one knee and a textbook on the other as I feverishly took notes and hoped that the employees wouldn't kick me out.

In the last few years, publishers have closed a few of the loopholes that I used to wander through. Textbooks are now updated almost constantly, so used copies or library editions are useless. Years ago, my wife worked as a textbook supervisor in a large university, and the stories that she told me about her work often made my hair stand on end. For example, one business professor received $200,000 to write a textbook and a further $20,000 per year to write a supplement that couldn't be exchanged or reused. Given that he was in charge of assigning textbooks for the entire Business department, this meant that hundreds of students had to buy a brand new $200 textbook every year. Conversely, dozens of professors were forced to use this particular textbook in their classes.

So much for academic freedom...

Recently, however, the Internet has offered a potential solution. In addition to the numerous sites that offer used textbooks or allow users to rent textbooks, there are now some companies that are publishing textbooks online. For example, Connexions is an online site, sponsored by Rice University, that allows users to access free educational material. The "modules," which cover numerous fields, are protected by Creative Commons, and can be constantly updated. Thus, in addition to offering a free source of material, Connexions also creates an environment in which students can receive the most relevant, up-to-date education possible.

Other professors have begun to offer free, online versions of their textbooks; alternately, sites such as Lulu and Flatworld make it possible for teachers to cut academic publishers out of the loop by marketing editions of their textbooks directly to students. While not as cheap as Connexions or online versions, these hard-copies are ideal for students who like to read their assignments off a page, instead of a screen.

Of course, the effectiveness of online texts is largely dependent upon professors, many of whom supplement their meager paychecks with royalties. Still, it's nice to know that there are other options out there!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He still has a warm spot in his heart for the Modern Library, whose cheap editions saved him a fortune.

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