Customizable Digital Textbooks – A Good Deal, But for Who?

by Staff Writers

Sometimes even the cynical online education writer (that's me) can be snookered by the hype surrounding recent advances in technology – That is certainly the case with custom textbook publishing, a practice that has grown in popularity since its arrival in higher education 4-5 years ago. Customizable textbooks are a great idea, with a very real benefit for students, if instructors are committed to using the medium to create innovative texts. I started researching for a piece on the burgeoning industry, with a focus on how the concept fits with my notion of the ways in which education should be customized for the individual in order to promote innovative thinking, only to find that far too often, texts are created which have little separating them from the mainstream, mass-produced version except for the fact that they can't be sold by the students after the class is over.

In all fairness, I generally side with a professor quoted in the Consumerist (from an NPR interview) who stated, "Students have to trust us, they have to trust us that when we say, um, keep this textbook on your shelf, you're going to need it. I have no problem requiring students to keep those textbooks."

In some cases this is the absolute truth. I received an email from a former student who told me he was very happy that he had kept the texts from a seminar he took with me. He said that he was going to (re?-) read them, because with a little perspective, he can understand how important they are (Neil Postman's The End of Education was one of the books), and that they make for an excellent answer to the job interview question "What are the last five books you've read?" (He was applying for teaching positions). In contrast, I was a "book keeper" all through college and recently found several hundred dollars' worth of texts in my mother's attic that squirrels had turned into nesting material. While I'm sure the squirrels appreciated the gift, I certainly could have used the money as a student. I never opened those books in the 20 years between graduation and now, and now they are well out-of-date as science texts.

Ego vs. Reality?
As framed in the preceding paragraphs, the debate over customizable textbooks boils down to a question of whether or not an individual professor's ego will allow them to concede that the text they have chosen may not be worth having their students keep forever. Thinking about the books required for a literature class is entirely different from the text required for an ever-changing discipline such as chemistry or physics. In the latter cases, customizing a text and assuming that your students should and will be happy keeping it forever, particularly in an age where more-up-to-date information is probably already available online, smacks of an arrogance that has long-plagued academia and which fuels the public perception of its indifference to the reality around it.

In reality, the customization of textbooks in any way greatly impedes the ability of students to resell those books when there is a market for them (The Wall Street Journal, July 10, 2008). This is particularly problematic when the texts are barely "customized" at all. The WSJ article reported that this was the case with a University of Alabama-specific edition of A Writer's Reference by Diana Hacker, which was identical to the original except for 32 pages describing the school's writing program which were also available for free online. The only other "addition" to this text was a disclaimer on the back that it could not be bought or sold used. This begs the question, "Are there ulterior motives behind these custom creations?"

Who Really Benefits from a Custom Textbook?
Beyond the debate over whether students should or should not keep their college textbooks and the benefits that they receive from this choice, there is a surprising side to the custom text market that I had not previously considered. It appears that some faculty members or their departments are directly profiting from the use of customized books in their courses or programs (WSJ, July 10, 2008). Faculty members certainly have a right to profit from their own intellectual property, and while I agree with the statement that teachers in general are underpaid, and that universities are underfunded, profiteering off of barely customized texts certainly seems unethical, if not downright immoral.

 Some universities are starting to realize that there are problems with the custom text model. A July 10, 2008 Chronicle article reported that PSU terminated a deal with Pearson in which they were receiving $10 for each custom text that their students purchased. According to Susan Welch, dean of the college of liberal arts, they did not feel right about "making money on students like that."

Aside from the universities themselves, textbook publishers have a huge stake in the production of customized textbooks. If a book originally costs $50 and can be sold by a student for $10 after the semester (that's a crime in itself worthy of its own discussion), then resold the following semester for $25, the original publisher, let's call them "P3^r$@n," is out $50 for every student who purchases a used copy of their book. When considered across the 3000+ institutions of higher education in this country, that is a huge loss. Customized textbooks stop that cycle. Even without the prohibition note on the U of Alabama custom job above, the market for a customized text is very limited; either to a specific institution or even a specific course, taught by a specific instructor. In short, a custom text really can't be sold back by students; there is no market for it.

This issue has led to investigation of the practice in many states including a conflict of interest probe by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. (WSJ, July 10, 2008). For more on this investigation and others like it listen to the NPR discussion on the ongoing debate, Book Buying Among College Practices Under Scrutiny.

What's the Answer?
At a time when higher education is undergoing scrutiny on all fronts, taking advantage of students' by requiring them to purchase customized texts for the profit of the university should be terminated as a practice. I do believe, however, that if faculty members are willing to write or largely re-write texts for their students which specifically contain information that they believe is superior to that available in mass-produced books, they should take advantage of the custom publishing option – Particularly if the information in the book is something that is likely to withstand the test of time or that can't be found elsewhere.

In addition to creating and delivering truly customized information to students, instructors interested in crafting a low-cost or free custom text for their students should consider some of the alternatives to the big publishers available (Matthew Watts, Oct. 18, 2011). Open content is a growing trend in all sectors of society, and higher education should be no exception. Three affordable or free custom textbook options are already available according to Watts' post in Test Drive Grad School Online, they are:

The customization of textbooks has great potential for contributing to making education individualized and specifically designed for a given group of students or a particular moment in history. It is a tool that should be used to the benefit of students and instructors alike, rather than abused for the sake of giant publishers and universities. Higher education is under attack for its failure to provide affordable education, and practices such as this reinforce the idea that students and their families may be better served by seeking free or lower-cost alternatives online. Shake off the capitalistic (sounds a lot like cannibalistic) desire to grab the quick bucks and embrace the new open content model as one more way of saying "no" to the "1%."



Image: digitalart /