Monday, May 30, 2011

Textbooks Go the iTunes Route

[ed.  I've been out of college for a while.  Can an introductory biology text really cost $185?  What kind of pricing methodology justifies a figure like that?  No wonder students and families are drowning in debt.]

by  Ben Wieder

The high cost of textbooks is a rising student complaint. It inspired recent federal legislation calling on colleges to list the cost of required reading. When courses use only a portion of expensive books, it only makes matters worse.

"Sometimes a professor only assigns five chapters out of a whole book," says Jennie A. Dexter, who just graduated from Oklahoma State University at Tulsa with a degree in marketing and management.

Now textbook publishers are offering an experimental form of price relief: The option to buy book chapters instead of the whole thing, in electronic versions with lower prices.

McGraw-Hill and Pearson Education are among the investors in the San Francisco-based start-up Inkling, which offers multimedia-rich iPad versions of several publishers' textbooks by the chapter or by the book. Cengage Learning also offers students the opportunity to buy chapters of various books in a PDF format, through its Web site.

For students accustomed to purchasing individual songs from Apple's iTunes store, the chapters option may seem like a logical step. Whether it actually saves students money depends on how many chapters from a book they are assigned, when they're given that assignment, and, in the case of Inkling titles, whether they were already planning to spend the $500 or more to purchase an iPad.

The 10th edition of Sylvia S. Mader's Biology textbook, published by McGraw-Hill, is one of Inkling's introductory-biology offerings. The book has 47 chapters, and Inkling sells each one for $3.99, with one chapter thrown in free. The company sells the entire iPad version for $129.99, and McGraw-Hill's hardcover version retails for $185. So students assigned 33 or fewer chapters would save money buying by the chapter rather than by the book.

Of course, such savings are only possible if a professor assigns just a portion of the book. Of 33 publicly available course syllabi that use the textbook, retrieved through a Google search, only two had more than 30 chapters assigned, meaning that students in the other 31 classes would have been better off buying by the chapter. But that is far from a wide-ranging or representative sample of courses.

Ms. Dexter says she would welcome the option to buy only the chapters assigned for class. "It's totally cost-effective," she says. A fellow recent graduate of Oklahoma State, Brent M. Fitzgerald, says most people he knows don't like paying for material they don't use. "Students read what they have to, that's it," he says.

And that's just what worries David S. Berg, a psychology professor at the Community College of Philadelphia. He likes the technology—he leads faculty workshops on using the iPhone and iPad in teaching and encourages students to buy digital textbooks. But he doesn't like what he calls the increasing "disarticulation" of the course model.

Read more: