Jan 4, 2010

On Designing College Courses While Avoiding Expensive Textbooks

Left: current version of one of my online courses that minimizes the use of textbooks; click graphic for a larger image

Over the past decade I believe I personally shelled out over $10,000 in textbooks as I worked my way from an undergraduate to the recent completion of my PhD. Thus, as I design my own courses I have increasingly been striving to keep costs down for my students where possible. A recent study showed that college textbooks have increased 240 percent since 1986, which is more than three times the rate of inflation.

Last semester I created a course on American labor history that used four historical novels and narratives, all of which are easily obtainable through used retailers or libraries. These were Lucy Larcom's A New England Girlhood, the book by Frederick Douglass entitled A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, and a radical novel by Grace Lumpkin entitled To Make My Bread. My thinking was to use the literature to provide students with an understanding of the social milieu of different time periods, while using the lectures and PowerPoints to provide the factual history of the evolving American labor movement.

My only self-criticism was that this course could have benefited from a general labor history, as many of my students were not history majors and thus lacked a basic background of the American labor movement. Still, savvy students could have borrowed all four books from the library, and used copies could have been purchased for well under $30.

This semester I am experimenting in one of my online classes with the concept of providing most of the textual material as hyperlinked Web documents. For example, I find relevant articles on certain topics and sometimes use Google Documents to upload the content and link it to the course website. For other documents (especially open source material) I simply provide the link to the material. Since I do not provide public access to the material and I limit the amount of each linked work, I maintain my responsibility to stay within best practices for fair use in the classroom.

What most intrigues me is the possibility of designing a course that is entirely built upon open source and fair use documents. There have already been quite a few educators willing to consider teaching without a textbook, and my suspicion is that the number of educators who embrace this concept will only increase in the next decade. On a related note, the following linked website offers quite a few useful resources for teaching without textbooks.

Another reason for challenging the established traditions - besides the high costs of college textbooks - is the evolving nature of information retrieval and knowledge retention. Many students, despite their seeming technological literacy, have a significant amount of trouble discerning a quality Internet source from Web-based intellectual garbage. For example, several of my students in a historical methods class last year unintentionally cited Holocaust denial websites in their papers on the Holocaust. I am of the opinion that educators should be spending more time on teaching Internet search skills and less time on the traditional assessment method of testing students on their ability to memorize facts from a textbook, especially when one can easily access most of general human knowledge by turning on the Acer Aspire and surfing the Internet.

Furthermore, as technological change continues to offer educators innovative opportunities to improve content delivery, we should be rethinking the very nature of how we go about teaching students in a digital age. It is quite possible that the use of paper-based books might soon become as antiquated as the dial telephone and black-and-white televisions, and our desire to hang on to outmoded forms of media might represent a sort of academic Luddism.

Finally, I should add that I am but a recent convert to the possibilities of digital teaching methods. My own experiences in the two online courses I took as a college undergraduate were less than ideal, and I personally prefer learning in a face-to-face environment. However, given the phenomenal growth of online education, it is the height of folly to expect a return to the good old days when the only classroom tools were textbooks, chalk, and a blackboard.

By the way - I am very desirous of hearing other ideas and comments on this topic. Please join in on the conversation by responding in the Comments section.


Anonymous said...

The worst robbery is when professors assign their own books and make more money from the students!!!!!

Christine Eisel said...

For my survey classes I generally use a textbook, but I require a "brief edition" and look for books that don't look or read like your typical text, ie "The American Story" or "Born in Blood and Fire." But last year, I did teach Women in American History without a text...used a few monographs, online readings, journal articles, etc appropriate for an upper level class. I had absolutely no complaints. I always started off every lecture with a bit of general background on US history (I'm talking brief, one ppt slide's worth) so that they understood the context of the themes we were about to discuss. I thought it worked well. I'm not sure how it would work in a survey level class, but I think it works well in upper levels.

historymike said...


Agreed that some professors profit from the inclusion of cheaply-produced textbooks they authored, especially those who issue "new editions" every semester that prevent even a single repurchase and resale. There is a professor at the University of Toledo who taught a class I took, and he forced students to buy a paper-covered, spiral bound "book" that looked like it cost about $4.00 to produce, while it retailed for $75.00.

However, most professors do not make much from the sale of a monograph. The real profits are being generated by those mass market textbooks that retail between $80 and $300 apiece.

historymike said...


I have noticed the same phenomenon with regard to survey level courses. Students arrive with an appaling lack of even basic knowledge of history. I am definitely intrigued by the idea of open source textbook models that are evolving.

historymike said...

Here is a link to what appears to be a useful open source textbook on the French Revolution.

prue said...

Even though I warn my students about the Holocaust Denial sites every year (repeatedly) there's always one or two who just don't get it. When students see a footnote on a source they simply assume it's authentic even if what it has to say is pure garbage.

One good thing about open access material on the internet is the sheer amount of fantastic and unique primary material that is on offer. Usually for the history courses I teach in we have a reader rather than a text book which provides a good collection of primary and secondary material, selected by the lecturer to complement the lectures, but it is a real pain to produce due to copyright restrictions. We used to have problems getting students to even buy the reader, now as it is all available online they complain about having to pay for printing themselves! Textbooks could be a better approach but they are seldom encompassing enough for history.

Oh and on the topic of making money off students, the psychology I studied in my first degree was definitely one area where lecturer's own textbooks were the norm, the ultra expensive norm!

Mesmerix said...

There's a lot of classic texts available via Gutenberg (all old enough to have their copyrights lapse). For instance, if you do a search for Sinclair, Upton, you'll find The Jungle available in both text and audiobook format.

It's a fantastic free source for educational and/or recreational readings.


historymike said...


I know what you mean about the Holocaust denial sites. I specifically lectured on the topic, and I offered some examples of denial websites to familiarize students with the genre, te at least three papers contained denial websites as references.

Also, I empathize with your struggles in producing a quality course-specific digital text that students will use. That is quite a bit of effort only to have students complain. Far too many students want the simplest route to a degree, and they are unconcerned about the noble goal of learning.

historymike said...


I agree that Gutenberg is an excellent resource, and I have used e-texts from Gutenberg in my own research when I did not have a given text at hand.