IT and the modern university

A Washington Post article points to a growing trend among university professors: replacing the course pack and the textbook with free online journal articles and textbook chapters.

“The use of electronic course materials has soared in recent years, as universities try to cater to a generation of students who grew up using the Internet and are often as comfortable reading words on a screen as on the printed page,” Vara [in the Wall Street Journal] wrote. “But publishers are wary of the practice, particularly as sales growth for textbooks has slowed in the U.S. The Association of American Publishers, a trade group, has sent letters to the University of California questioning the school’s practice of letting students read course material online.”

She cited Shiv Mahajan, a Stanford University freshman who didn’t buy a single textbook for his cognitive science course and has taken out only one book from the library so far this year: “In one recent lecture, he hadn’t finished the assigned reading ahead of time, but skimmed the last few pages on his laptop as the professor talked. ‘I’ve never been much of a book reader,’ he says.”

Publishers are catching on and going after universities, hoping to make an example of one or more of them. They may very well succeed. I suspect the likely outcome will be either a surcharge on online articles to replace the lost revenue, a charge on the online journals for which any one university already pays over $1m, or a return to the written product. In the short-term, it will likely be the third. So much for saving trees, although we have to balance this against royalties for authors and energy for the computers/Internet.

4 Responses to “IT and the modern university”

  1. Liam says:

    I haven’t purchased a single textbook this year. At a couple of points I was tempted, but going to the library once or twice a semester to read/take notes/photocopy the parts I need from the textbook on reserve is certainly worth the $400 buying the textbooks would cost. Particularly for math classes, the internet is a far better resource than any textbook could be, particularly Mathworld, run by the Mathematica makers. It also helps there are a lot of CS and math resources available freely on the internet, I’d imagine the availability and quality of information would vary substantially between fields.

    I did however buy one textbook last year which really bothered me, because they added it to Books24x7 not so long after, which we can access 24 hours a day through the McGill VPN. $110 down the drain.

  2. sieber says:

    Does this mean that, instead of textbook, you search by subject area? Say, the concept is the culture in Uganda and you search for material on the country?

  3. Liam says:

    Yes, searching by subject or more specifically by topic is generally how I look for information. For example, I had to learn about convolutions, the textbook source we were to use was called “Linear Systems” or somesuch, but searching on google for discrete convolution or continuous convolution gave me a good number of resources. As a starting point I generally just go straight to mathworld for mathematical sorts of subjects, and Wikipedia for CS sorts of questions. If I need things more in depth google and muse can usually provide I find.