Archive for Sunday, June 14, 2009

Textbooks may be next iconic loss

June 14, 2009

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The auto industry is on life support, banks are almost nationalized, investment houses are gasping for breath, retailers are struggling. So it may not surprise you to learn that another hardy perennial of society is teetering. Bid farewell to the textbook.

The textbook? That huge bound volume with the diagrams of the innards of a frog and, as every schoolboy knows, plastic overlays of the reproductive system of the homo sapiens? The book that has pictures of all the presidents and a chart of all the vice presidents? The go-to place when you want to know all the verbs conjugated with etre rather than avoir? Say it ain’t so, Paul Samuelson.

This is bad news for publishers (fewer books, fewer bucks), college professors (smaller royalty check, smaller Chevrolet next year), and orthopedic surgeons (no backpacks, no back strain). It is good news for students who no longer may have to lug the lugubrious and memorize the mediocre. And don’t tell me that today’s textbooks are a lot livelier than the textbook I struggled with in summer school precisely 35 years ago this month (“Botany,” by Wilson, Loomis & Steeves, 5th edition). It’s still the same old genre, still the same old story (no fight for love and glory).

The Twitter age

Maybe the textbook still has a few years left, but it may have been dealt a death knell last month when that renowned educator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, announced a plan to abandon texts for the generation accustomed to tweets.

“Today, our kids get their information from the Internet, downloaded onto their iPods, and in Twitter feeds to their cell phones,” the governor wrote (where else?) on his blog last week. “A world of up-to-date information fits easily into their pockets and onto their computer screens.”

California is one of the world’s biggest purchasers of textbooks, so it’s a big development when its governor, until now better known for “The Terminator” than for term papers, envisions digital textbooks as easier to carry, easier to update, easier to afford. Why didn’t someone think of this before?

Actually, lots of people are thinking of this now, and last month Amazon.com released a special version of its Kindle reader to accommodate the size and features of textbooks. A number of universities, from Pace to Princeton, have signed up. At Case Western University in Cleveland, students in chemistry, computer science and the university’s freshman seminar will test the large-screen Kindles — and compare their experience with students who rely on the old-fashioned technology of a textbook.

“We’ll see if this new way leads to more time on task and whether it leads to more student-faculty interaction,” says Lev S. Gonick, the chief information officer at Case. “This has huge, huge upside potential.”

This is the place in a column where smart readers will wonder about the incongruity of a newspaper editor saluting the demise of another printed product at a time when the printed newspaper is not exactly the most robust element of the national culture or economy. But the newspaper traditionally has been supported by advertising, which is its own sad story, and the textbook has been supported by sales.

No free knowledge

This is not the place for a homily about the peril of distributing labor-intensive content for free, but before we leave the subject let’s be sure to acknowledge that publishers of textbooks aren’t about to put their information out without taking some cash in.

Cashing in is what at least some textbook authors and producers have been doing for years. Samuelson has been churning out editions of his landmark “Economics” textbook for more than 60 years; the book now is in its 18th edition and is one of the touchstones of American culture, even if its author’s skepticism of supply-side economics added controversy to the volume in the Reagan years. It is also a huge moneymaker, proof that Samuelson knows a bit about microeconomics. Another classic of this genre is “Government by the People,” which has tormented college students through four decades and at least 21 editions.

Because the used-book market is so vibrant on college campuses, publishers now insist on putting out new editions every year or two, each edition only marginally different from that of the year before. The result is that students can’t pass down (or sell) their books, adding to the financial burden faced by college students and their families.

L. Sandy Maisel, who teaches government at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, tells his students they have to master everything in “The Challenge of Democracy,” by Kenneth Janda, Jeffrey Berry and Jerry Goldman, now in its 10th edition, but he focuses his classes on supplementary material.

“In the digital age, one of the challenges is to figure out how to use online versions of texts so that students get the benefit but the authors still can gain from their intellectual property,” Maisel says. “We need to be sure to compensate the authors or you won’t get good scholars to write these books. And you need good editors.”

Renee Patrick, who teaches English in Johnsonburg Area Junior-Senior High School in Elk County, Pa., northeast of Pittsburgh, has been assigning the ninth-grade and 11th-grade versions of “The Language of Literature” the past few years.

“This textbook is huge and heavy, and even so, the utility of the material is limited,” she says. “But I worry that in a rural area like ours, some of the students would have difficulty accessing computers on a regular basis.”

Change is coming

Though total sales last year of textbooks was $3.77 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers, change is coming. The printed textbook is still overwhelmingly the most popular means of assigning and doing classwork, but 95 percent of McGraw-Hill’s college textbooks now are available in electronic format — and CourseSmart.com, which sells electronic versions of textbooks, boasts that as of June 11, it already had saved 256,611 trees.

A generation from now there may be no conventional textbooks at all. Another pillar of the old world is shattering. As it does, let’s not pretend that the older generation did all the assigned reading. We didn’t.

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