Back in the dark ages, I remember being very upset about the amount of money I spent in the college bookstore as an incoming freshman. Every course had at least one textbook that had to be purchased. English had several books, but at least they were small and relatively cheap. The kicker, I remember, was calculus. This was no $35 paperback like the structured programming and educational psychology texts. No, this was a $65 hardcover tome that I wasn’t looking forward to lugging around campus. The only consolation was that it contained three courses’ worth of calculus, so I was saving money in the long run.
That book is still sitting on my bookshelf, though I can’t say that I’ve opened it in the last decade. After three semesters, it was out of date and practically worthless. There wasn’t really much point in selling it back. Besides, I was going to be a math teacher. It might come in handy when teaching AP Calculus somewhere down the road. Like I said, its main purpose in life these days is to keep the bookshelf from blowing away if an unexpected tornado should rip through our home office.
Things have changed a lot since I went to college. This week, The Business Shrink reported that college textbook prices rose 186% between 1986 and 2004. They cite two studies by the U. S. government that report an annual increase in textbook costs of around 6%. That’s about double the inflation rate. The average American college student spends $893 a year on textbooks. If you’re interested, you can read the U. S. Department of Education Report or the Government Accountability Office Report.
There doesn’t seem to be any indication that things have improved since 2004. In an unscientific survey of college students working in my office, we determined that, while textbook prices vary widely, a student can expect to spend around $100 per book. Some of the texts include CDs, and these have to be purchased new because the digital rights management on them prevents them from being re-sold. Sometimes, students can get a break by purchasing electronic-only versions of the textbooks in a subscription model, but students still spend $100-150 per course for books.
That’s the college picture. What about K-12? Our science books are running around $65 for the student edition. Our geometry book is $68. The American history book is $99. All told, each of our high school students is carrying around at least $350-400 worth of textbooks. That’s well over half a million dollars worth of books for our 1600 student high school. In fact, district-wide, we spend more than twice as much money each year on textbooks as we do on technology.
Now… what if we wrote our own books? I know, I’m crazy. But hear me out. We have the best teachers around. Our American history teachers can make their subject come alive. Our math teachers can explain really complicated things in a way that makes them seem easy. Our biology teachers can draw a diagram on the board from scratch in 40 minutes that explains photosynthesis better than a whole chapter in the students’ bio books. All of these teachers could create their own teaching materials, and those materials would be better than the ones we’re spending a fortune on now.
Right now, our teachers get $37.50 per hour for course of study writing. Let’s say we want them to write a textbook. A year-long course might be divided into thirty chapters, with each being in the neighborhood of 10-20 pages long. I’m thinking in terms of a traditional textbook for the moment, though the final result may not necessarily take that form. If I could encorporate creative commons and public domain work along with my own writing, I could probably create a first draft of a chapter in about 20 hours. Revisions and peer editing might take another 5-10 hours. All told, we could probably write the book for around $30,000. That will last us five years, after which we would have to spend more money to revise it (though significantly less than the original investment).
If we do this for a course that all students take, that works out to about $75 per student. For that much, we could just buy the textbooks and be done with it. But what if we write an American history text, and we get the school down the street to write world history, and we trade? Then, we get two textbooks for $30,000. If ten schools did this, we could cover the whole social studies department without spending any more money. If a hundred schools participated, we could probably take care of all of our textbook needs at every grade level, in every subject. For 10% of our current textbook budget, we could build a sustainable program.
“But there are no books,” you’re saying. “You haven’t printed anything.” Right. There are lots of ways to handle this. Here are a few ideas:
- Use newsprint. We have our school newspaper printed on newsprint for around 25 cents a copy. Print each unit as needed, and give a disposable copy to the students. They’re carrying around a paper that weighs a few ounces instead of a big, heavy book. At the end of the unit, just recycle them. Total cost? Maybe $8 per kid for a year long class.
- Use portable media. Burn it to a CD or put it on a flash drive. The students would have to have computers to read it, which would be a big disadvantage. They could selectively print if necessary, but that would be expensive if they did it on laser printers at school. The focus would have to be on reading it on the screen. I saw an ad for customized 1 GB flash drives yesterday. They were $8 each, and we can get our school logo printed on them. CDs are about 20 cents each.
- Put it on the web. We could use a wiki for a collaborative document, or we could put it in a course management system if we wanted to control access to it. Students access the material online. There’s nothing to carry back and forth to school. Again, they have to have computers to access it, but we could provide hard copies to those without access if necessary.
- Use Portable devices. Use a document reader in a PDA, or an e-book reader, or even an mp3 player. Remember, we’re saving a few hundred thousand dollars a year, here. Over time, this might even be enough to pay for a 1:1 laptop initiative. That would have a transformational effect on how we do school.
I’m not saying there aren’t challenges. But information is not at a premium anymore. We shouldn’t be paying these prices just for information. We can put that stuff together ourselves and do a better job for less money.