Taking Notes: Eye on Education – University Textbooks

This column focuses on a wide range of issues affecting post-secondary students. Students are encouraged to submit suggestions and educational topics they are concerned about, or personal experiences with courses or university situations they feel other students should know about. If suggest a topic or a course alert for taking notes, contact djabbour@ausu.org

UNIVERSITY TEXTBOOKS

University textbooks are an expensive addition to our university education. At AU our textbooks are included in the cost of our tuition (giving us an income tax advantage), but for campus-based students, textbooks can represent a significant amount of money. Sometimes used textbooks can be purchased, but often university texts are revised frequently, rendering used books quickly obsolete. For undergraduate students, the university textbook plays an essential role in providing course structure, and a good textbook can make all the difference between success and failure.

Why are university texts so expensive? Why are they revised frequently? Why are good textbooks hard to find? One reason is that writing texts is not an activity many professors find attractive – a research paper in a peer-reviewed journal earns a level of respect that writing a textbook does not, and in academic circles textbooks are of minimal value when it comes to tenure evaluations. Texts are time consuming and the financial return negligible in comparison to the amount of work involved. One author estimates her earnings at about 25 cents an hour! (McCabe, 2004, p.12)

Not everyone can write a textbook, either. Good writers must not only be authorities in the subject area, they must convey an enthusiasm for their subject that will engage the learner. Originality is discouraged, since teachers usually opt for textbooks that “do not stray from the mainstream schools of thought that dominate their disciplines” (McCabe, p.11).

Because textbooks are expensive to write, and because publishers do not make money when students buy used textbooks, revisions and updates are common. Some argue that this is essential to remain up-to-date with technology, noting that a textbook that is ten years old will have little relevance with the here and now. Many authors believe that a textbook is never static, but requires continuous incorporation of new material.

In such an environment, therefore, it is exciting (and unusual) to read about 24 Athabasca University professors who have published a new textbook and are giving it away on the Internet! “Theory and Practice of Online Learning” has already been downloaded 11,000 times since its electronic publication six weeks ago. The textbook was co-edited by Terry Anderson and Fathi Elloumi, and includes sixteen chapters written by AU faculty on topics such as online learning theory, technology, library resources, teaching methods and student interactions.

Although it’s not likely that students will see other textbooks made available electronically for free in the near future – Athabasca University is leading the way in a new and improved way to write and distribute university textbooks. Hopefully other universities and academics will take notice!

References:

Theory and Practice of Online Learning: http://cde.athabascau.ca/online_book/

Authors widen audience by giving away books: Electronic format gives power to the people. Edmonton Journal, April 13, 2004.

Foot soldiers of the scholarly press: Meet the authors who toil in the trenches of academic writing. Daniel McCabe, University Affairs, April 2004.

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