can advertising liberate textbooks? 08.16.2006, 10:38 AM
posted by ben vershbow
The aptly named Freeload Press is giving away free PDFs (free as in free beer, or free market) of over 100 textbooks titles (mostly in business and finance, though more is planned). All students have to do is fill out an online survey and then the download is theirs, to use on a computer or to print out. Where does the money come from? Ads. Ads in the pages of the textbooks.
An ad for FedEx Kinkos in a sample Freeload textbook. Hmmm, wonder where I should get this thing printed?
Ads in textbooks is undoubtedly a depressing thought. Even more depressing, though, is the outlandish cost of textbooks, and the devious, often unethical, ways that textbook publishers seek to thwart the used book market. This Washington Post story gives a quick overview of the problem, and profiles the St. Paul, Minnesota-based Freeload.
Though making textbooks free to students is an admirable aim, simply shifting the cost to advertisers is not a good long-term solution, further eroding as it does the already much-diminished borderline between business and education (I suppose, though, that ads in business ed. textbooks in some ways enact the underlying precepts being taught). There are far better ideas out there for, as Freeload promises, "liberating the textbook" (a slogan that conjures the Cheney-esque: the textbooks will greet us as liberators).
One of them comes from Adrian Lopez Denis, a PhD candidate in Latin American history at UCLA. I'm reproducing a substantial chunk of a brilliant comment he posted last month to the Chronicle of Higher Ed's Wired Campus blog in response to their coverage of our announcement of MediaCommons. We just met with Adrian while in Los Angeles and will likely be collaborating with him on a project based on the ideas below. Basically, his point is that teachers and students should collaborate on the production of textbooks.
Students are expected to produce a certain amount of pages that educators are supposed to read and grade. There is a great deal of redundancy and waste involved in this practice. Usually several students answer the same questions or write separately on the same topic, and the valuable time of the professionals that read these essays is wasted on a rather repetitive task.
As long as essay writing remains purely an academic exercise, or an evaluation tool, students would be learning a deep lesson in intellectual futility along with whatever other information the course itself is trying to convey. Assuming that each student is writing 10 pages for a given class, and each class has an average of 50 students, every course is in fact generating 500 pages of written material that would eventually find its way to the campus trashcans. In the meantime, the price of college textbooks is raising four times faster that the general inflation rate.
The solution to this conundrum is rather simple. Small teams of students should be the main producers of course material and every class should operate as a workshop for the collective assemblage of copyright-free instructional tools. Because each team would be working on a different problem, single copies of library materials placed on reserve could become the main source of raw information. Each assignment would generate a handful of multimedia modular units that could be used as building blocks to assemble larger teaching resources. Under this principle, each cohort of students would inherit some course material from their predecessors and contribute to it by adding new units or perfecting what is already there. Courses could evolve, expand, or even branch out. Although centered on the modular production of textbooks and anthologies, this concept could be extended to the creation of syllabi, handouts, slideshows, quizzes, webcasts, and much more. Educators would be involved in helping students to improve their writing rather than simply using the essays to gauge their individual performance. Students would be encouraged to collaborate rather than to compete, and could learn valuable lessons regarding the real nature and ultimate purpose of academic writing and scholarly research.
Online collaboration and electronic publishing of course materials would multiply the potential impact of this approach.
What's really needed is for textbooks to liberated from textbook publishers. Let schools produce their own knowledge, and spread the wealth.
Smitty on August 16, 2006 12:09 PM:
Do the researchers, writers, editors, illustrators, photographers, graphic artists, mark-up editors, fact checkers, server farm space providers, and all others involved in providing a textbook deserve to be paid? The cost of the average book is high, indeed (I have two daughters and a wife in school so I know a bit about the cost of upper level textbooks!), but the alternative of free textbooks is not sustainable. At some point, someone has to either give the money to the group (a la wikipedia) or they will fold (a la huge numbers of failed eBook projects over the years). Kids are confronted by ads everywhere, from product shots in movies and TV shows, the soda machine in the lobby of their school, ads in play programs, yearbooks, and football programs. Creative companies engage the market in fun ways (like FedEx for printing reports as you mentioned, or even print-out coupons for tux rentals or tutorial services). Why is advertising seen as such a horrible thing? We tell students to emulate public figures like Tiger Woods or similar, but when was the last time you saw a picture of Tiger without a Nike swoosh? Wait - there's that series for business services he's in at airports now - "Be a Tiger." I don't think he had a Nike emblem on in those shots, but I could be wrong. I didn't pay that much attention.
Which is my point.
We're so used to seeing advertising that it just washes over us unless we find it interesting, compelling, or informative. So let the ad companies foot the bill. We'll sing their jingles, use their cultural references, and, if they convince us to, use their products. Let's concentrate on the other pages in the book, though, in order to help our children be more informed consumers. (Actually, I can even see teachers using the ad as a lesson: "Is this a good ad? Does it convince you of the product's merits? What questions does it bring up? Have you researched the company? What are their trade practices? Would you buy from them, based on this ad, or on the research you have done? Who are their competitors? Are they responsible for human rights violations in their manufacturing or distribution chain? Should we bring these violations to the attention of the textbook publisher or the school administration? Should we boycott their products in protest, or champion them because they brought down the cost of our educational materials?")
Jesse Wilbur on August 18, 2006 12:22 PM:
Wikipedia shows that, at some level, peer-production works. Adrian is talking about taking that to the next level in terms of involvement, but lowering the number of participants; one highly involved editor directs a small group of students in the pursuit of a scholarly end. Even though the argument includes a critique of the price of textbooks (and suggests that this will be a solution), I think the more interesting idea is in the changing role of the teacher, and the different approach to the classroom. Rather than homogeneity, Adrian's approach is contigent upon diversity, an approach which will challenge both students and teachers as they pursue divergent topics through different means. Synthesizing the results of these various enterprises (for student comprehension, and instructor grading) has the potential to be extremely rewarding.
Of course, the next logical step is to share this feeling with others, so why not package it up? If we can convince universities that peer-production is applicable to their situation, we may be able to provide one alternative to the corporate funded education. And why do we need that? For the same reason as we need a large gene pool: diversity is the best protection against disease, which in this case, is a culture so wrapped up in the workings of business and consumption that we are unable to separate the motivations of companies from that of individuals.
Is advertising bad? No. Should we study it critically? Yes. It is an area of culture in which we (as Americans) excel. But it's goal is personal attachment and identification for the purpose of convincing you to buy something. There is value in keeping an actual (not just a critical) distance from the business world, if only in order to nurture a sensibility about our culture that is free of the consumer mentality.
virginia kuhn on August 18, 2006 8:50 PM:
This notion of student generated course content has a fairly long tradition in writing pedagogy. In 1986, David Bartholomae and Anthony Petrosky wrote Facts, Artifacts, and Counterfacts: Theory and Method for a Reading and Writing Course, which describes a group research project that persists over semesters. The point is to position student writing in similar terms as published writing in order to both raise the bar for students as well as to empower them. This seems like a fitting paradigm for multimedia work and it's one I've used frequently.
kim white on August 20, 2006 4:43 PM:
Ben said: "Ads in textbooks is undoubtedly a depressing thought. Even more depressing, though, is the outlandish cost of textbooks, and the devious, often unethical, ways that textbook publishers seek to thwart the used book market"
hmmm, you say advertising by multinational corporations within the learning environment/textbook space is depressing but acceptable? I don't know if it's that simple I think it is hard to teach students about academic freedom when their textbook is really just a vehicle for FedEx and Nike. If corporations that don't understand education control these spaces, then...well...they control those spaces and sooner or later they will mess with them. Do publishers mess with things? Not in the same way. Textbook publishers market to instructors and institutions, so they are very sensitive to academic standards. The products they make are engendered by whatever needs are voiced by professors. FedEx (and other advertisers) are marketing to students. They don't care at all about the integrity of the learning environment, they just want a captive audience. And what a brilliant (devious?) idea, a textbook as an advertising space. Can't get more captive than that. If these advertisers can figure out a way to tweak that book in order to sell more of their product, you can bet they are not going to take an instructor's needs into consideration. If you think students will just ignore the ads and benefit from the "free" space then you don't understand how marketing works.
To characterize textbook publishers as "devious and unethical," really isn't accurate or fair. The current publishing paradigm plays a supporting role in the academic community. Textbook authors are cultivated from among the senior ranks. Their work and research is supplemented by textbook royalties and the books they create allow them to pass along the knowledge gained from years of experience as teachers and reserchers to students and to junior faculty. There is an ecosystem that exists here and if you want to dismantle it and replace it with "free" textbooks authored by students, it would be wise not to gloss over the potential damage this may cause. Why would a senior professor choose to spend his/her sabbatical writing a textbook that only brings revenue to Freeload Press? If these senior professors stop passing on their knowledge, what will that mean for the quality of education and the quality of up-and-coming educators? Also, it fair to ask students to work on books that will generate revenue for Freeload Press and its advertisers? That REALLY seems unethical to me.
Full disclosure for those who don't know me, I work for a textbook publisher. But I'm an alumnus of the Institute, so I think I've seen this from both sides of the fence. I do understand the impulse for the open source textbook and I know of quite a few experiments that have turned out valuable learning tools. I agree that students are motivated and well-served by peer examples and collaborative opportunities. And there are many other great ways in which students and educators will benefit from open source projects. What this argument is missing is a sober examination of the downsides of taking textbook production out of the hands of professional editors and publishers whose interests are very deeply intertwined with those of the instructor (our customer). It's more complicated than "evil publishers vs. can-do students." Let Google in China be a cautionary tale. The academic community has far more control over publishers than publishers have over them (indeed we spend ALL our resources trying to understand what they need and how best to provide it). But internet companies don't subscribe to this paradigm.
On a sidenote and speaking of Google, have you seen what they did with Writely? It's pretty exciting. And hypocritical of me. I just finished my sermon about not selling out for free tools, and I will now go and try out my free Writely space thank you very much...that's the windmill we should be tilting at. Anyway, I'm off to Writely...
ben vershbow on August 20, 2006 11:49 PM:
Many great points, though I think there are a few things confused/conflated here. First, I'm not advocating for Freeload -- far from it. I agree one hundred percent that advertising in textbooks is a disaster. Still, it's worth looking at the economics that have brought us to this juncture. Second, open source textbooks does not mean under the auspices of Google. My goodness, that's the last thing I would suggest! Nor does it have anything to do with a publisher like Freeload, as these sentences seem to imply:
There is an ecosystem that exists here and if you want to dismantle it and replace it with "free" textbooks authored by students, it would be wise not to gloss over the potential damage this may cause. Why would a senior professor choose to spend his/her sabbatical writing a textbook that only brings revenue to Freeload Press?
You also imply that removing the economic incentives from textbook production would mean no more good textbooks. I don't buy that. I think that what open source knowledge projects in the mould of Wikipedia potentially herald is a change in scholars' notions of prestige, service and reward. This change is not likely to come from the "senior ranks" who are producing today's textbooks. It will come from a younger generation of scholars, like Adrian, who recognize new publishing forms as an opportunity for pedagogical innovation. As Adrian compellingly argues, there is already an enormous amount of writing going on within our universities, but almost all of it goes into the trash. Use these resources in a smarter way, and build strong collaborative networks throughout the academy, and we may eventually find that we don't need textbook publishers anymore, at least not in the sense we're used to.
ray on August 21, 2006 2:03 AM:
I agree with Ben. It's great to see you weigh in.
I also wanted to mention a trend of open access to educational material with the adoption of content management systems. When the web first appeared many teachers put up learning material on the web which was open to anyone with a browser. Once CMSs started getting used much of this material, even just syllabi and reading lists became locked behind password protection.
I mention this because, along with the other relevant options alreadyed discussed in this there, we see that there are lots of different modes of production, distribution and price structures for textbooks and educational material. I think the key thing is to try to maintain as many of these modes as possible in order to try to make sure the spectrum of needs have accesible solutions.
kim white on August 21, 2006 12:28 PM:
Ah, it's good to be back. Here are a couple of additional thoughts on the future of textbooks...
Ben said: "Second, open source textbooks does not mean under the auspices of Google. My goodness, that's the last thing I would suggest! Nor does it have anything to do with a publisher like Freeload"
Only problem is, it does have something to do with a publisher like Freeload. This may sound crass and capitalist, but there has to be a revenue model for a major project (like the creation of a textbook) to survive. What I'm suggesting is that internet-based communal projects still need financial support. It's great that the Institute can provide some of this, but the kind of infrastructure needed to create the learning tools that textbook publishers currently produce is quite extensive. I am suggesting (you weren't, but I am) that Google is, perhaps, positioning itself to satisfy the craving you have identified (that of instructors and student wanting to create and publish their own content). Google has a writing tool, a bibliography tool, a blogging tool, a bookstore (Google books which has yet to launch). And, don't forget, they are scanning the entire library of three major universities. Not to mention existing copyright-protected textbook content that they are attempting put out there for free (some would say to steal). As Ray points out, for-profit companies are compelled to look for ways to profit from their goods and services, Google is no exception. The thing about Google is they make money, in part, from information they gather about you. That's a really big difference and it has all sorts of implications for education and free speech. If a company like Google is interested in luring the academic community into their shiny world of free tools, what are they planning to do with them once they have 'em? I mean, we should think it through.
As far as quality goes. I said it when I was at the Institute, there is a big difference between writing a Wikipedia entry and writing a whole book. So far wiki textbooks has not been very successful for the humanities. I really believe that a good humanities textbook requires a "voice" and an author or group of authors with the kind of deep insight that comes from many years experience with the subject matter. I think there will always be a place for this kind of book. (Or at least, I will always want to read this kind of book.) At the same time, I'm really excited about the way young scholars (and sometimes not-so-young scholars) are using technology to make really exciting learning tools, engaging assignments for students, and pedagogy that shakes the foundations. I'm all for shaking the foundations and finding ways to use new technology to empower the individual. Perhaps the institute can figure out a way to shelter these efforts and keep them free.
I also agree with this: "we may eventually find that we don't need textbook publishers anymore, at least not in the sense we're used to." It's a really interesting time for the publishing industry in general. Blogging has affected newspaper publishing in much the same way that projects like Adrian's will affect textbook publishers. It's all very huge and exciting.
ben vershbow on August 22, 2006 5:31 PM:
...but there has to be a revenue model for a major project (like the creation of a textbook) to survive. What I'm suggesting is that internet-based communal projects still need financial support.
True. But should they be required to operate like businesses? Libraries are not asked to be self-sustaining. They get funding. Why not scholarly/educational publishing?
kim white on August 22, 2006 10:11 PM:
It could operate like a non-profit, a for-profit, or a government agency as long as there is support. I think we are saying the same thing.