Why are we still talking about the high price of textbooks?

About a dozen years ago, a professor friend of mine was moderating a panel at a national conference.  At the time, I worked for a major publisher and managed a large portfolio of texts in his discipline, so I accepted his invitation to be part of the panel.  I had assumed (and it is true what they say about “assuming”) my role would be to speak about how to get published, which was my standard conference stump speech.  Imagine my horror when I found out I was THE publishing representative for the “Why do textbooks cost so much money?” panel!  (In spite of this, I am still friends with that professor).

What was true then is still true now, just more so.  Professors have always had a myriad of choices from which to build and deliver their courses.  The full, comprehensive textbook has been, and continues to be, one of those choices.  But even back in the dark ages of 2003, the market offered lots of choice: brief books, course packs, loose leaf, primary sources, novels, shared syllabi, and nascent offerings of online material.  Today the choice of learning materials is even greater: from free (or nearly free) offerings from MOOCs, OpenStax, Flatworld, CK12 and Khan Academy (to name a few) to more comprehensive (and more costly) programs that adapt to students’ understanding of concepts, build personalized study programs, provide early warning and retention help, and provide services like on-demand tutoring. 

So I was a bit taken aback when I saw the article a few weeks back from David Levin, CEO of McGraw Hill, suggesting to teachers that they could lower the price of learning materials to the student if they “went digital.”  Now, I am sure that article had nothing to do with the precipitous drop-off of text revenue (nor the fact that every August since I can remember, the obligatory “expensive textbooks” article appears just as students are beginning a new school year), but I was pretty confused by the headline.  Are there instructors out there who are seriously concerned about the price of textbooks who have not looked at the myriad options available to them and their students that simply lower costs, digital or not? 

“Going digital” can, in fact, lower the cost of learning materials.  But “going digital” requires much more than moving from a print book to an ebook.  Instructional technology can provide data and feedback, down to the specific area of weakness, for every student in a 300 seat lecture class.  It can provide personalized help when the instructor is not available.  It can extend office hours, encourage collaboration, help create and house student-created artifacts, increase digital literacy and 21st century skills, and engage students in their own learning in ways a lecture/textbook format just can’t.  But here’s the rub:  “Going digital” requires that teachers change their role in the classroom.  They must be willing to be a guide to a student-centric learning experience.  And that, not the great desire to hang on to expensive textbooks, is a major reason why the move to “go digital” has been so slow. 

Having worked in both P-12 and Higher Ed, there is a marked difference in the pace of culture change when it comes to digital teaching and learning.  The truth about university instructors is that most are not trained to teach, but rather to research.  They have built their courses as extensions of their own work, their own learning.  The pedagogical theories and foundational underpinnings of digital teaching and learning are known only to the few who seek out that information, but is not part of their ongoing training.  I often hear from my industry brethren that instructors don’t change how they teach because of their egos; I believe it is really a lack of understanding and training (and meaningful incentives).

To make the move to digital, publishing companies need to move beyond “saves you time and saves students money” marketing spin.  They need to ensure that instructors who do choose digital teaching and learning have training and continued support that goes deeper than a click-through of platform features.  Meaningful professional development is how to help all of our teachers, P-12 or higher ed, “go digital.”