Geneseo professors not sold on customized e-textbooks

An article published in Inside Higher Ed on Oct. 20 reported that the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh's College of Business has received a $300,000 grant to develop a model for customizing e-textbooks.

The grant comes from the U.S. Education Department's Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.

"There are a lot of really great teachers out there that can really feel stilted by using a common textbook that they didn't vote for, and that results in a bad learning experience for the student," said M. Ryan Haley, an associate business professor from the University of Wisconsin, in Inside Higher Ed.

The Oshkosh business school intends to designate one professor in each academic department as a "principal investigator" who would pen an e-textbook covering about 80 percent of the material to be taught in an introductory course. Individual faculty would complete the books with their own supplemental material.

A common argument made for the use of e-textbooks is that they have the potential to save students money, since only one comprehensive book will be required for each course. E-books also have the capacity to be rented out for a limited number of months, typically for less than the purchase price of the book.

Several textbook publishers already offer customizable bindings, where professors can choose to omit certain chapters or have their own material bounded into the book.

Professors at Geneseo said they were concerned that customizing or renting textbooks might erode the value that a traditional comprehensive volume can offer.

"Many of the biology faculty think that students should own a textbook and keep a textbook," said biology professor John Haynie, referencing the common practice of selling books back at the end of each semester.

"It disappoints me that students don't value the textbook more than they do," Hayne said, adding that textbooks can usually be used as a reference tool long after a student completes the respective course in upper-level or post-graduate work.

He said that there may eventually be applications where a temporary customizable textbook might be appropriate, but that a good textbook will not only state key facts and concepts but also "provide details of how an idea was developed."

Kurt Fletcher, professor and chair of the physics department, said he was concerned about uniformity in a textbook that is assembled from different authors. "You don't get a coherent view of assembling a problem," he said, especially in an area like physics where formulas can be denoted in a variety of ways using different variables.

"The comprehensiveness [of a traditional textbook] is useful," said chemistry professor Wendy Pogozelski. She said she agreed that textbooks have the greatest value when used over a lifetime rather than for one course.

"I would personally probably find [a book with selected sources] to be beneficial," said biology professor Abbi Cox. Cox currently lets students choose between two textbooks that present similar material at differing levels of complexity.

Cox said that for students who learn best by reading, it may be useful to have complete coverage of topics by different authors rather than one textbook supplemented with singular handouts or papers from external sources.

"It's going to be interesting over the next few years to see how textbooks evolve," said math professor Chris Leary, noting that customized textbooks can be "attractive for the instructor as well as for students."

Leary said, however, that he has not felt the need to use such textbooks, as many math textbooks have already been crafted with years of experience on what material should be covered in a given course.

"I keep my big science books that I can refer back to," said junior Emily Reding.

Junior Molly Gaudioso said she sells back her books. "My dad pays for them and lets me keep the cash I get back."

Because of their cost, textbooks have become a source of increasing contention as faculty seek to provide quality reference material while considering the financial repercussions for students.