April 21, 2008

University Profs Do Not Sign Affordable Textbook Pledge

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To most students, the concept of free textbooks is a distant fantasy.
However, a group of professors representing schools across the country has pledged try to use a cost-cutting — and often times free — alternative when selecting textbooks for courses.
According to The Affordable Textbooks Campaign, 1,000 professors from over 300 colleges states joined the group’s latest initiative last week, declaring their intent to use open textbooks in their classes — instead of traditional, commercial textbooks. While professors at Harvard, Stanford and Yale have signed onto the campaign, no Cornell professors are signatories on the declaration.
Open textbooks operate like the increasingly popular open source software such as Open Office, a free alternative to expensive Microsoft Office Software.
Open textbooks are online textbooks written by academics that are free to download and print. Students can order a print version often times for $10 to $20 or professors can include the open textbooks as part of their course packet, both of which cost significantly less than commercial textbooks.
Professors or students using open textbooks are also free of typical copyright restrictions, allowing them to add or remove certain content.
While The Affordable Textbooks Campaign claims open textbooks “are of comparable quality to commercial textbooks are already available” some Cornell professors expressed concern over using open textbooks in their classes. [img_assist|nid=30063|title=Pricey print|desc=A student browses the shelves of the Cornell Store for textbooks before classes in August.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Prof. Louis Falkson, economics, said that he would consider using open textbooks for his classes only if the books were comparable to the commercial edition. He said that in choosing a textbook for his classes he is primarily concerned with the book’s quality.
“If book A is better than book B, I would choose book A even if it is more expensive,” he said.
Falkson said that the intermediate economics course at Cornell that he teaches is unique in its rigorousness and use of calculus. Accordingly, the textbook used for that course would not necessarily be the same one that is mass marketed to other schools, he said.
Falkson added that it is also important to judge a textbook on whether students would want to keep the book as a reference for other subsequent courses.
“The recent emergence and adoption of a number of viable open textbooks suggests that high-quality textbooks do not necessarily have to be expensive textbooks,” according to The Affordable Textbooks Campaign.
The campaign cited California Institute of Technology Professor R. Preston McAfee’s “Introduction to Economic Analysis,” as a successful open textbook that has been adopted at intermediate microeconomic courses at New York University and Harvard.
Some students at Cornell were enthusiastic about the possibility of free or cheap textbooks being used in classes, yet most were concerned about the quality of the open textbooks.
“If it’s affordable and easy to acquire that’s great,” said Ju Song ’11. “However, if the content is not exactly the same as the commercial textbook, I would be concerned.”
Song said, like many students, he always looks for opportunities to keep his textbook costs low. He said he shops at Kraftees, where books are often cheaper than the Cornell Store and also compares prices of his textbooks online.
Allen Back, senior lecturer in the mathematics department, said that while he is sympathetic to The Affordable Textbooks Campaign cause and the open source movement, he chose not to sign the declaration because he was not prepared to commit to open textbooks for his classes. He said the textbooks he uses for his introductory statistics class, for instance, are very good, and he knows of no alternatives that are qualitatively comparable.
“I think we can readily produce open source materials that are good, but it may be that the conventional textbooks with armies of editors are better,” Back said. “However, it is unclear exactly where the cost-benefit trade-off is.” Back added that he would like more of the mathematical community, including the American Mathematical Society, to get behind the open source movement.
Back said that he thinks open source material is viable and exciting for the future, but some obstacles remain. “I think the biggest hurdle is that the quality of open source elementary material has not yet typically matched the commercially produced material.”