The pixels or print dilemma for free textbooks

Wed 23 Jul 2008 09:41 AM

Free textbooks have gotten media attention recently. Mostly, they are offered as a solution to the rising cost of higher education. See, for example, this USA Today story. Academic fashion plate that I am, I was ahead of this trend. I wrote an open access logic textbook back before free textbooks were cool.*

Kevin Smith has a nice discussion of how universities might encourage this sort of thing (which I found via via Peter Suber's blog). He points out that an advantage of digital resources is that they can be adapted and incorporated by people who have similar but not quite the same needs. With my book, for example, people can change the logical notation to match their preferences and other texts used in their curriculum. They can use parts of the text, possibly in combination with other open access material or their their own additions. People using the text in these ways (Smith suggests) "provide an effective 'peer-review' to measure the quality of the faculty author's contribution." (I will probably mention this in the context of my upcoming tenure case.)

Unfortunately, these discussions typically conflate online and open access. The USA Today headline reads: Online 'open textbooks' save students cash

I distribute forall x via my website, as well as via the SUNY digital repository, but I don't see the PDF as a product for student consumption. If it were, students would be stuck in a dilemma: Either they print it off or they don't.

A. If they don't print it off, then they just end up reading it at their computer. PDFs aren't optimized for reading on-screen, because the shape of page is different than the shape of a screen. Moreover, most students aren't very good at reading PDFs. Most of them would comprehend the text better if they marked it up as they read: underlining bits, making marginal notes, and so on. Yet most of them are not using PDF readers that allow for commenting.

For books that serve as workbooks and have exercises at the end of chapters, the problem is even worse. Students working through problems need paper in front of them and they need to be flipping between the material, the problem set, and the references in the back of the book. All of this is slightly less convenient on the computer, so learning the material is harder than it needs to be.

Perhaps in the next generation students will be better at digesting documents on screen. Perhaps physical textbooks will actually be harder for them. But my students today are not the students of the future.**

B. If they do print it off, then they probably aren't doing so efficiently. I am not sure of the environmental impact of individual laser printing, as compared to copies by way of a printing service. But most students don't have their own laser printer, and so will probably pay more per page than if the whole book were printed by a copy service. And they will probably print single-sided, using more paper.

Students who have ink jet printers pay more and are indubitably worse for the Earth if they print the book.

The horns of the dilemma strike different students in different ways. The hassle involved in printing discourages some students from having a hard copy. So they end up accessing the book on screen, which is less conducive to learning, which leaves them struggling in the course.

The natural resolution of this dilemma is to separate 'online' and 'open access'. I make forall x available as a printed course packet for my students. I make it available electronically, but primarily for people in distant places who would like to use it for their own courses or for their own purposes. Of course, some of my students refrain from buying a copy and just look at the text online. This is no different from traditional textbooks, though, which some students refrain from buying in favor of using the library's copy on reserve or using a friend's copy.

* Given the template for this kind of rant, the next sentence should be: All the people writing free textbooks now are just sellouts.

** Note also that many students keep textbooks and refer to them years after having taken a course. Most students don't, but many do. You, as a reader of this blog, were probably one of them. How many old textbooks do you have on your shelves? Hardcopies are fine for this, because they live on a shelf and age gracefully. Digital copies, not so much. Just because a file is archived doesn't actually mean it will be readily available a decade later or that the former student could remember enough about it to turn it up in a search.