As many states and college systems fight budget troubles, the state of Washington has come to the realization that many other states have:

Why require students to buy expensive textbooks every year, when the Internet is awash in information, much of it free? After all, the words of Plato have not changed in the past 2,000 years, nor has basic algebra.

So, as this Chronicle of Higher Education article describes, the state will be working on a system of converting the community colleges to online texts and materials, with the idea of bringing savings to students, who spend up to $1,000 a year on books, and to the legislature, which foots much of the textbook bill for community-college students on state financial aid.

Unfortunately, many of the college departments see problems ahead, not the least of which is sorting through the incredible amount of material on the web for suitable, reliable teaching materials.  For professors, used to selecting textbooks and sticking with them, the job of investigating the vast web for their materials is not one they relish.

Nor do they trust web sources as much as textbooks.  Even though some texts have recently been revealed to have glaring errors that were missed in the schools’ vetting processes, creating embarrassing situations of grievously-inaccurate textbooks getting into students’ hands, there is much less confidence in the accuracy of most online material.

And finally, there is the traditional attraction of printed texts.  A recent study by OnCampus Research cited by No Shelf Required (though the study link seems to be down) indicated that 74% of students still prefer printed texts for classes, and over 50% indicated they might not buy digital texts even if they were available.

Still, resistance to digital texts is crumbling in many areas, according to other sources, which will hopefully encourage more effort to find the best digital texts and use them.


  1. You’d think a professor could find a good copy of Plato’s dialogues or Aristotle’s Ethics from Gutenberg. Not sure we want to teach Geometry from Euclid, but the public domain still offers wonderful choices.

    Students object to eBooks because they think they’re getting a bargain when they resell their textbooks. When the realize that eBooks offer a significantly lower total cost, as well as something that they can continue to hold indefinitely, I think that poll will quickly change.

    Rob Preece

  2. I guess I don’t understand the quality issue. I would think that all college textbooks reside at publishers in electronic form already, but students only have the printed-book versions available to them. The publishers could just take the electronic versions they already have in-house and convert them to e-textbooks.

  3. Beware those “studies” done by people that are not exactly disinterested (e.g Assn of College Bookstores). It is important to understand how respondents (college students) perceive the choices. An un-resellable eBook prices at 80% of a pBook has little appeal, especially if it expires at the end of the semester.

    As for college professors, on has to wonder how it is that one who “professes” to have mastered a field of knowledge could not create their own textbooks — if not individually, collectively. As well, we have to wonder why the institutions that employ professors don’t do more to support such eTextbook writing. After all, text books are largely collections of factual materials and summaries of research in a given field. None of this is protected by copyright.

  4. There does seem to be a legitimate concern that there’s no reliable vetting process in place to confirm the accuracy of web-based materials. Obviously a system of reviewing and approving web-based content is needed… and it should be better than the current book-based vetting system, which has been showing its own flaws of late.

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