Textbooks versus E-Books

Textbooks versus E-Books

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A few weeks ago I came across an interview on TechCrunch with Brian Kibby, the president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education, discussing his positive outlook on the future of e-books, e-content and generally the future of what he calls ‘super adaptive learning.’ Contrary to what one might expect from a textbook publisher, Kibby explains in the interview that he expects to see a significant increase in the adoption of e-materials within the next year and full adoption within three years. Optimistic?

The discussion encouraged me to look a little closer at the current situation and trends in university/college level economics. POET’s (Prices & Ratings of Economics Textbooks) commentary spells out a 3% p.a. jump in the price of introductory and intermediate textbooks over the last 20 years, stating that today, one is unlikely to find such a book for under the $150 mark.

Taking a quick look through some common Intro to Econ textbooks on Amazon, it is immediately apparent that POET’s commentary is quite accurate. Greg Mankiw’s popular textbooks: Macroeconomics (7th Ed.) goes for US$152.12 and Principals of Economics (6th Ed) coming in at $293.95. Other popular textbooks including Paul Krugman’s books Economics or Essentials of Economics come in at $152.32 and $115.41 respectively. Paul Samuelson’s 19th Ed. of Economics is $182.58, while Richard Lipsey’s 12th Ed. Economics, isn’t available on Amazon.com, but on Amazon UK it lists for much less than expected at GBP39.59 (US$62.56).

Take these prices and multiply them by, say, 2 books per course, 4 courses a semester, 2 semesters a year, and 4 years and the numbers start rising faster than I care to count. These prices have led to a number of things, including increased student debt and overflowing bookshelves, especially when a prized new version is published shortly after you spent around $150 on the last version which is now ‘out-dated’.

This brings us back to Kippy’s premise that alternatives may be the way of the future. Looking around the web this website from SUNY Oswego lists a number of free online economics textbooks and other web resources in various sub-disciplines ranging from introductory through graduate levels written by professors at various international institutes. Some of the listed resources are full textbooks like this one by Arnold Kling. Others are set of lecture notes like these ones by Ariel Rubinstein. This being said, in the last few years some very prestigious institutes have opened up their courseware to open access initiatives, MIT being one example with MIT Open Courseware.

One question to be pondered when discussing free resources is whether or not the same level of quality is maintained. Very few would challenge the notion that Greg Mankiw and Paul Krugman are experts in their fields, which is one of the reasons why their textbooks are so widely used, but if economics 101 courses were to be taught using entirely free e-materials would the quality suffer? Or, can we expect an increase in the quality of e-materials? This is a question that I am going to defer to commenters!

An alternative is the booming e-book market, although not necessarily free, often much cheaper than their hardcover, ‘dead tree’ counterparts. Many people are able to access their textbooks on laptops, cell phones and tablets – although the formats can be demanding about which books can be used with which programs. Back to my trusty Amazon search, however, neither of Krugman’s main textbooks are available in Kindle version or, for that matter, in Kobo version – two of the main e-readers. You can, however, find some of his other books for under $15! Same goes for Greg Mankiw, Paul Samuelson and Richard Lipsey. An issue that could be rectified in the future as new versions are published in both paper and digital.

A question to the professors and lecturers: Do you use e-materials in your classrooms and lecture halls?

Photo Credit: remirofall


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