Thursday, December 25, 2014

Textbook Prices: Latest Research or Biggest Racket?

A Quick Look at Teaching, Learning and Textbooks
Primary and Secondary Communications Models

This discussion of text books leads MeanMesa to a favorite model of human communication -- in this case, applied to teaching and textbooks.

That model rests on the idea that there are two interdependent transactions under way during the teaching/learning process. In the larger view, of course, it is a specific case of human communication where information is being transmitted from someone who knows it to someone who wishes to learn it.

The first of the two parts is the transmission of the content, itself. This we can describe as the primary communication model. The second part of the transmission deals with the reciprocal activities of both the transmitter and the receiver of the primary model during the transmission process. This can, for convenience, be considered the secondary communication model.

An example may help.

In a vocal conversation the primary model is the content being sent from one of the participants to the other. In this case the two "elements" of the process emerge almost immediately. The teacher is communicating content to a student who, driven by whatever motivation applies, is, more or less, inclined to learn it. The content being communicated by the teacher is quite finite, and the product of the student's effort to learn it is, correspondingly, quite measurable. [Primary model: content]

However, as the teacher is transmitting this content, all manner of individual things are occurring in a classroom filled with students. Some of them respond to the teacher's transmission by looking puzzled, some by looking fascinated, others by looking angry and still others by looking bored and disinterested. All these expressions are, actually, communication transmissions from the students back to the teacher.

In this secondary communication model, the students are communicating their individual responses to the teacher's transmission, and importantly, they are communicating whether or not they seem to be understanding and learning that content. [Secondary model: expressions]

In his own response to these expressions, the teacher may "adjust" the tone or method of his content transmissions. If the teacher's transmission is not producing the effect he desires, he may change it, but, even if he makes this change, he will not be changing the content he needs to transmit.

However, although this post is about text books, we can begin to see the same communications models at play as were in the case of the teacher and the students. Some teaching "methods" make understanding the content straightforward, while others make it more difficult than necessary.

Viewed in this way, textbooks are filling a role which is parallel to that filled by teachers. A textbook is communicating a primary model -- content, and the effectiveness of this presentation relies on the secondary model -- presentation.
 Two Reasons Textbooks Are Replaced
How such large expenditures can be justified

When we look at the cost of two or three classes of 20 students each purchasing a new textbook for $100, the total expenditure -- $6,000 -- begins to, well, explain things. 
We can comfortably assume that different styles or text books containing the same content [primary model] may also be quite different in terms of the ease and effectiveness of actually understanding and learning their content [secondary model].

By looking at the process in this manner,we can search for possible, compelling reasons why old textbooks might need to be discarded and replaced with new ones. There seem to be two major reasons which could justify replacing textbooks.

The first major reason: Textbooks which -- by their style of presentation of the content -- make material more difficult to understand and learn -- qualify for replacement by textbooks which present the content in a more easily available and effective manner.

Textbooks, like the teacher in our example, perform their function with both a primary and secondary communications model, but, differing from the case with the teacher, textbooks are static. If they are ineffective in transmitting information about the content, they will continue to be ineffective. They cannot "adjust" their ineffective presentation, their secondary model.

[If this turns out to be the reason to justify replacing textbooks, MeanMesa is curious about how -- and why -- the ineffective textbooks were chosen in the first place.]

The second major reason: The necessary content of textbooks can change. If the old textbook content were studied and learned, it would be incorrect or obsolete.

The technology available for use in all sorts of observations changes almost daily. New observations, especially observations which provide evidence of previous hypotheses or directly contradict them, is very often a good reason for new textbooks. Until well into the 1900's respectable astronomers and astrophysicists were working with the proposition that the Milky Way galaxy was, in fact, the entire universe.

Most likely the 1490's Florentine textbooks prepared after Columbus' first voyages as far as Brazil along with his conclusions based on those earliest observations proposing that the South American continent represented the most distant outskirts of Asia, justified replacement. The Greek and Roman maps of the Mediterranean, although impressive for the time of their creation, were routinely discarded and updated for centuries.

The point here is that there really are massively important issues of new, useful, well validated content throughout history. If the entire body of human thoughts could be made material, these events would have added quite significantly to the existing total and very reasonably justified the replacement of textbooks with the previous content.

This really caught on when Gutenburg mastered the technology of not only mechanically producing the books which had become obsolete, but replacing them relatively quickly and cheaply.

However, what will be the metric used to determine that new observations, statistics or theories are of a sufficient importance to justify retiring hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of textbooks and replacing them?

Imagine aliens arriving from a very different world. They observe the Earth's human culture and establish a somewhat "objective" measurement of the exact size of the "complete body of knowledge" humans have developed. Next, our planetary visitors size up the amount of knowledge currently contained in all the text books in use at the time.

To complete their observations, the aliens next look at the book publishers' "marketing argument" that additions to that "body of knowledge" require the obsoleting of text books currently in use and the creation of new ones. The conclusion, viewed from the point of view in this scenario, is fairly clear.

99.999% of the "knowledge" presented in the existing textbooks is complete and valid. Any student who learned what was in the text book which was just replaced would probably turn out to be quite well educated. If it were necessary to add some new information or correct some part of that existing content, a simple pamphlet should suffice.

MeanMesa has to assume that the cost of providing such "supplemental publications" should already be a part of the price of a new textbook.

Textbooks Through the Decades
We used to actually wear out our school books

Late in the Pleistocene Epoch when MeanMesa was a mathematics student, most textbooks were quite inexpensive compared to their modern equivalents -- even in inflation adjusted dollars. Further, the utility of the presentation found in them was, typically, also quite comparable.

With respect to being accessible and understandable, the publishing and formatting of modern textbooks dealing with the same material seems to actually be somewhat worse -- probably made more confusing by efforts to make it less confusing. The astonishing increase in prices cannot, generally, be justified by a claim that textbook contents have been made more accessible in subsequent publication formats.

Solving integrals the Pleistocene way [image - CRC]
In fact the texts used in advanced mathematical logic classes amounted to a number of relatively thin paper backs. One memorable exception was the purchase of a CRC published volume showing general forms of integration solutions for thousands of calculus equation forms. It cost around $60.

Oh sure, we groaned about such an "outrageous" expense, but going through integral calculus without one of these would have to amounted the equivalent of "cleaning the Augean stables" with a soup spoon. Any truly loud complaints were met with the explanation of how hard it was for the publisher to set all these mathematical symbol fonts [in those days this had to be accomplished manually]. The CRC handbook was usually kept safely next to one's slide rule.

The process of getting a university education has, since then, undergone a disturbing transformation. Although this post is about textbooks, a larger picture reveals the echo of a similar fate which has fallen upon other aspects of a university education across the board.

What Happened to the Colleges?
The text book scam just got dragged into it as an after thought...

The whole thing has been monetized.

This process didn't unfold as the result of any sort of lethal conspiracy. It began in earnest, innocently enough, before the Civil War. Folks who had graduated from college -- in the beginning, a very small minority -- were, well, able to do things. Society also noticed that these graduates were getting paid well, too.

All of this was not necessarily clear in the early days. The college students were largely the sons [the daughters didn't start having their chance until much later] of the 1% of the day. Additionally, the course curricula of those earlier days generally included a heavy dose of religious teaching, too. Nonetheless, society began to have an impressive number of "educated" citizens.

Further, those early institutions were, of necessity, quite frugal with salaries and student amenities.There weren't any "basket ball scholarships" floating around for many years.

However, as the American society grew more and more affluent, and as the American economy's appetite for "graduate talent" grew far greater, the universities found that their revenue and trust accounts could provide for a more and more sophisticated -- and costly -- "business plan."

Over time when administrators realized that tuitions could be raised without any appreciable negative impact on attendance, the "game was on." The statistics showing the increased earning power of graduates served as a perfect lubricant for any cost-based hesitation which might have emerged as parents were asked for greater and greater expenditures to purchase a college education for their children.

However, even decades ago, it was also becoming clear that while the earning capacity of some graduates was quite high, the earning capacity of many others was mediocre. As the oligarch class steadily worked toward the "de-professionalizing" of educated experts in any field, the population of those in the "mediocre" group began to increase rapidly toward its contemporary demographic as we see it today.

Still, the well established myth of increased earning potential proved unchangeably durable. The rather frightening levels of student loan debt continued to be justified even after the statistics had long ago ceased to support its promises.

Had the banksters not spotted the "lending opportunity" of financing these educations on borrowed money, the system would probably have corrected its trends and begun, once again, to offer university education at a reasonable rate. But, with the sudden influx of available financing from "college loans," all the weaknesses in the system shifted into "over drive."

These "weak or vulnerable" elements of the system were never designed to turn out this way, but as lots of available student loan cash continually pumped financial resources into every opportunistic opening -- including, for the topic of this post, the cost of college text books -- there was little in the financial part of the system which remained "market rational."

[image - University]
 The cost of a college education would never have reached this "hyper ventilated" state if students and their families had been left to face such exorbitant expenses without the benefit of student loan money. The pricing and the corresponding largess of the business model driving prices in the "university education market" would have been forced to "correct" itself by consumers no longer willing or able to pay.

While text book costs represent a much smaller part of the out of control total when compared to sky high tuition prices, even this wasteful little pocket of "profit harvesting" would have been utterly abhorrent -- if not out rightly infuriating -- to the parents of students while they were trying to pay for such an education.

Yet, with pockets full of student loan money, financially inexperienced college students pay to replace completely usable text books "as demanded" while generating a multi-billion dollar annual "opportunity" for publishers, legal parasites who seem to enjoy plenty of rather sinister "cooperation" from suspiciously complicit university curriculum designers.

[MeanMesa has posted on this subject previously: Student Loan Debt: The Trillion Dollar "Dog Collar" ]

How Bad Is It?
Depends on whether or not you're a banker...

Have a look at this BOSTON GLOBE article. It presents a possible solution to this continuing trend -- open source textbooks authored by university faculty and published by university presses. [Excerpted. Read the entire article here - BOSTON GLOBE Links from the original article remain enabled.]

Can textbook costs be controlled?

Universities across the country have begun experimenting with open textbooks

By Ben Schreckinger

That’s because the cost of college textbooks is out of control. Between 2002 and 2012, their prices rose by 82 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. (Prices are up 812 percent since 1978, more than three times the rise in the consumer price index). Today, college students pay more than $1,200 on average for books and supplies every year. It’s piling an outrageous financial burden onto an educational process that’s already burying my generation in debt.

Luckily, there’s a fantastic solution to this problem: open textbooks. These peer-reviewed e-books are just as good as traditional textbooks, but they’ve got one big difference — instead of coming with a triple-digit price tag, they’re free. Drawn by their promise, universities across the country have begun experimenting with open textbooks. A consortium of 29 institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and Rice University, operate one online repository. A group including the University of Minnesota, Purdue, and Oregon State maintains another. A Boston-based startup called Boundless assembles textbooks using open source materials, and it launched a platform in August that allows others to publish their own open textbooks.

Still, open textbooks remain a niche product when they should be the default in undergraduate (and high school and middle school) courses nationwide.

In November, Democratic senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois tried to speed up their adoption by introducing a bill that would fund open textbook pilot programs on campuses across the country. Predictably, this promising idea has gone nowhere in Congress.

But no matter — universities don’t need the federal government to kick-start an idea that’s long overdue. They already employ all the professors, the people who could be creating and implementing open textbooks en masse if given a nudge in the right direction. Instead, most schools are pushing their professors to waste energy on pursuing research that is useless or worse. 

First, there’s the research that people have no use for. We have a study to tell us that sword swallowing can be risky (“sore throats are common”), and one to tell us that rats prefer Beethoven to Miles Davis (until you give them cocaine). It only took five researchers to publish a model last year to help us understand just how much skiers enjoy skiing, or to put it in plain English: “The expanded model in a sporting context further evidences the functional roles of the orientations to happiness by results consistent with extant literature of positive psychology.” 

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Every dollar that doesn’t come off the price of textbooks will put downward pressure on tuition.
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Then, there’s the epidemic of peer-reviewed research that’s fraudulent, error-ridden, or otherwise misleading and therefore fails the fundamental scientific test of reproducibility. 

Last March, in just one example, scientists at the Cambridge-based ALS Therapy Development Institute published an article in the journal Nature detailing how they couldn’t replicate the results from any of eight previous studies that claimed to find promising ALS treatments in mice and that had led to failed — and costly — clinical trials.

Why is this happening? It’s complicated, but a big part of the problem is that publication credit is the coin of the academic realm. Professors have to get their names on articles in academic journals to receive tenure and secure their professional stature. But not all of these academics have the ideas or the resources to pursue worthwhile research. 

Universities have a chance to kill two birds with one stone here. By explicitly considering work on peer-reviewed open textbooks as an alternative to some part of the requirement for publishing new research, tenure committees can jump-start the open textbook movement. Academics with promising research to pursue will continue to do so, but those who are grasping at straws for the sake of finding something, anything, to publish, will have a better option.

Colleges can’t expect to maintain current levels of enrollment at the current cost of higher education, and every dollar that doesn’t come off the price of textbooks will put downward pressure on tuition. That pressure will only grow more acute as low-cost online models go mainstream. To compete, traditional institutions will have no choice but adopt open textbooks — unless, of course, they plan to offer free, open-source beer.

And this article from NPR highlights growing trends of student policies who are attempting to "side step" some of the pain currently inflicted by the racket. [Excerpted. Read the entire NPR article here - NPR.]

How College Students Battled Textbook Publishers To A Draw,

-In 3 Graphs

David Kestenbaum
October 09, 2014

College textbooks are expensive. You probably already know this. A new biology or economics book can cost $300.

And prices have been soaring, doubling over the past decade, growing faster than the price of housing, cars, even health care.

But, surprisingly, the amount students actually spend on textbooks has not been rising. In fact, the best data we could find on this shows students have been spending a bit less over time.

How is this possible? Well, when prices go up, people usually try to find ways to avoid paying those higher prices. That seems to be what is going on here. The spread of the Internet has made it easier for students to find used textbooks in faraway places. Textbook rental has become a thing. Some students can now buy e-textbooks, which tend to be cheaper than print books. Others are borrowing books or going without.

That last chart actually helps explain the first one showing prices for new books going through the roof. If you're a textbook publisher selling fewer books every year, how do you cover your costs? One way is to raise the price for the new editions. Of course, this encourages students to buy even fewer. A former textbook salesman I talked to called it the "spiral of destruction."

One textbook executive told me the way out of all of this is to replace textbooks with something better and cheaper: educational software. Basically interactive, digital versions of textbooks.

For students there is one drawback, though. You can't sell digital textbooks back to the book store, or to anyone, at the end of the semester. There is no used market. That's another reason publishers like them.

Additional Information Resource

This resource link [pdf] will lead you to a series of very interesting tables covering a wide variety of the costs of attending college. It is the College Board's file on college pricing from 2013. [Things haven't changed much in a year.]

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