textbooksOver at The Digital Reader, founding editor Nate Hoffelder posted some comments on a report from something called “The Book Industry Study Group,” which shows an increase in “piracy” among college students.

It isn’t clear from the limited info Nate posted just how large the sample group was, how they were polled, or what other questions were asked of them. But I do have some experience in the different possibilities for what might be going on here, and it is far from a straight line between “textbook sales are declining” and “piracy is on the rise.”

I do agree with Nate that pricing of college textbooks is exorbitant. During the four years I spent earning my English degree (1996-2000), the single most expensive book I bought was $80 (The Norton Shakespeare), but my university also had a policy where every required text for every course was put on ‘reserve’ at the library, so that students who couldn’t afford the books could use them there.

A reserve book could be signed out for four hours at a time and it could not leave the library. It was not something you could rely on unless you had good planning skills—if you went to sign it out and it was gone already, you’d need to leave time in your workflow to wait four hours and come back—but at least it was there as a possibility.

Today, of course, I could get the Shakespeare for free in about five minutes, and legally at that. I’ve even been thinking of putting together an e-book of my own, with links to free books students could use to build their own liberal arts degree.

But I have also continued my education since my degree has been finished, and I’ve seen a move away from books altogether. Consider my three-part French qualification, which I took as an add-on to my teaching degree:

Part 1 – 2007: There was a paper textbook. That was it.textbooks

Part 2 – 2009: Choice between a paper textbook or slightly cheaper on-line ‘”access” via a horrible, protected macromedia flashpaper document that expired when the course was up

Part 3 – 2013: No textbook at all. All course readings are from articles freely available on-line and linked to via the course organizer software.

So, I didn’t buy a textbook. But I wasn’t pirating anything, either…

So, why does my current course have no book? There are a few reasons. All of them are possible. And maybe all of them are simultaneously true:

1. It’s an on-line course with some students living in far-flung areas. Maybe they didn’t want to worry about students missing course time waiting for books to arrive?

2. It’s a leadership course and we’re supposed to be studying the most current theories. The publishing time for textbooks is too long; journals and magazines are more current.

3. Some of the research we’ve been studying (such as the implementation of the CEFR—Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) is still in progress, and therefore has not yet been fossilized into textbook form.

4. Instructors perhaps are more sensitive to the high cost of textbooks than they used to be, and if an alternative will suffice, they are happy to use it.

Notice how piracy doesn’t even enter into the equation? The reality is that it’s the professors who determine the need for books, not students. If they want to look at why teachers are assigning fewer textbooks, that’s a different question to me than, Why aren’t students buying more books?


  1. There is also the option of students and professor writing the textbook. A colleague of mine who teaches an advanced course in behavioral neuroscience recently did just that. He and his students created a 358 page fixed layout ePub using in comic book style entitled, “Neural Systems.”. All of the students are named as co-authors and they distilled the content from the latest research in this field. Student outcomes were much higher in all areas assessed.

    One of my favorite Vygotsky quotes is, “He who does the talking does the learning.” This approach certainly seems to support that conception of learning. What better way to talk than to write for a discerning audience.

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