Welcome to a world of free access

Traditional textbooks can encourage intellectual passivity in students. But alternatives are beginning to emerge, writes Matthew Reisz

November 27, 2008

Teaching in a university, says Alan Bradshaw, sometimes reminds him of the old Jimmy Durante song, I'll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book. Very often, he explains, "setting reading exercises in preparation for the next lecture can result in awkward moments as it becomes apparent that only a tiny number of students have actually read anything.

"Undoubtedly, textbooks are responding to this reality."

Some of the responses can be pretty startling. Bradshaw is now senior lecturer in marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London. In an earlier job at the University of Exeter, he taught a module where the core text (backed up by journal articles and book chapters) was Stephen Brown's The Marketing Code. Like its sequel, Agents and Dealers, this is a parody of a Dan Brown page-turner, which slips in educational messages by stealth.

It cannot, of course, provide the core facts on a plate for students to memorise and regurgitate in exams, but Bradshaw deplores the passivity encouraged by traditional textbooks through the "bullet-pointisation of the curriculum". In Stephen Brown's book, by contrast, "the protagonist is a marketing lecturer who is slowly transforming his understanding of marketing away from predictive models and towards a more dynamic sense of the subject.

"This was exactly the journey that I wanted the students to undertake," says Bradshaw.

Brown himself, who has a day job as professor of marketing research at the University of Ulster, sees his books as "experiments" that "can serve as springboards for class discussion" and have the huge advantage of being priced like "standard airport novels" (a traditional textbook might cost four to five times as much). In a world where "male students in particular are awfully reluctant to read", writers have to find ways to engage them.

But Brown also claims that his books explore aspects of business - the importance of luck, sex and revenge at work - that many authors shy away from.

We are hardly likely to see a flood of textbooks taking the form of blockbusters. But there are other examples of writers turning to fiction.

Russell Roberts, professor of economics at George Mason University, Virginia, has produced a series of books, The Choice: A Fable of Free Trade and Protectionism; The Invisible Heart: An Economic Romance ("Can Laura love a man with an Adam Smith poster on his wall?" asks the blurb) and now The Price of Everything: A Parable of Possibility and Prosperity.

All cut to the core of economics in a way textbook writers seldom attempt. "I haven't used a textbook in many years," explains Roberts. "Textbooks are shallow and wide. I'm more interested in narrow and deep. I teach a few things in depth in hopes of having my students learn the economic way of thinking. Reviewing myriad theories is sure to teach them virtually nothing other than how to take an exam.

"I want them to see economics as a tool, not as a set of results ... Most people feel more comfortable making sure they 'cover everything', which is essentially what a textbook does in most cases. I don't believe 'covering' things is conducive to learning."

Other threats to the traditional textbook apply right across academic disciplines.

Randolph McAfee, who taught economics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), worries about prices, which tend to drift upwards once teachers build their courses around a particular book, creating "substantial lock-in". He finds it "incredibly annoying when a publisher creates a new edition that scrambles the chapters, purely as a device to kill the used-book market, since my syllabus also becomes obsolete". And publishers' desire "to have a book that sells well everywhere" makes them "encourage authors to dumb down", he says.

This means that although students today work much harder than McAfee and his peers did in the 1970s, they have to make do with textbooks that are "substantially more watered down and insipid".

One possible solution is to make first-rate textbook-style material available free online - for example, through the Connexions project. This is the brainchild of Richard Baraniuk, Victor E. Cameron professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice University in Texas, who believes that "open access is the future of scholarly publication, period".

"It's just too efficient to cut out the middle man (traditional publishers) and allow educators and scholars to talk directly to their readers. Our goal is to move to a world where everyone, everywhere has free access to world-class educational materials."

But why should people put in months of work to produce a textbook without a reasonable monetary reward? McAfee, whose open-source Introduction to Economic Analysis can be accessed within seconds, sets out one possible scenario.

Before he embarked on the project, he talked to his division head at Caltech and made sure that it would be "viewed as a research contribution" and that he "wouldn't suffer by doing less research published in journals". The mission of the university, he suggested, was "the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and addressing a dissemination problem is at least as effective as answering questions".

"Writing a $160 (£100) text does not aid the dissemination of knowledge (and should not be rewarded), while freely available high-quality teaching materials do."

McAfee's initiative has indeed justified itself in terms of press coverage for Caltech (although it is hard to imagine a British university encouraging an academic to devote hundreds of hours to a similar project). But he remains disappointed by his lack of influence. "I thought perhaps professors would write and donate chapters or improvements if I led the way," he says, "but this hasn't come to pass. It would be nice to have ten different versions tuned to different audiences, but so far no luck."

Yet despite this blip, students' changing reading patterns, and a sense that many textbooks combine high price with low quality, means that radical change is in the air.

"Few people will provide free texts without a substantial financial incentive," admits McAfee. "However, it doesn't take many. The skills needed to write a solid book aren't that rare and we need only a handful of books in each field."

Publishers: you have been warned.

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