There have been a couple of recent posts about textbooks lately. Jim Fiore started it all with a look at the textbook business from the perspective of the authors and students, looking primarily at the problem of money. One sentence really hit me, though:

The problem with a large, institutionalized used book market is that it completely cuts out the publisher and the author.

In a larger economy, it is called 'stock market'. When you buy stocks, most often you will be buying them from a broker, not directly from the company. In other words, you are entering the used-stocks market. You are investing, but not into the company. Yet, the worth of a company is measured by the way its stocks are doing on this second-hand stock market. Only about 6% of the stocks in any given year are sold by the businesses themselves, i.e., the money invested in those stocks go back to the company which can then use it for R&D or for PR or for salaries, etc. Many old, well-established companies have not sold any new stocks in decades. This is as if the performance of, for instance, Ford is measured not in the sales of new cars, but in the re-sale value of the second-hand cars. Ford does not get a penny out of any of those transactions, can do very little to influence that market, yet it is required to do whatever it takes to increase the worth of its stock despite of no money coming in. The stockowners demand it, without ever giving back anything to the company. So, the CEOs slash and cut left and right, trying to get growth without having anything coming back in with which to water the plant. This is much better explained in this book (written by a small business owner and no enemy of capitalism) by Marjorie Kelly.

But, back to the textbooks. PZ Myers looks at the business from the perspective of a teacher:

It makes it difficult for students to sell off their used textbooks, it gives faculty the headache of having to constantly update their assignments, and if you allow your students to use older editions, it means we have to maintain multiple assignments. It's extraordinarily annoying, and to no good purpose at the university (to great purpose at the publisher, though).

Jim responds:

In the arena of science and engineering there are issues with the fairly narrow audience and resultant low volume, and some difficulties with the used book market. There is, of course, the issue of the publishers. I am going to risk having my snout slapped by biting the hand that feeds me, but hey, I noticed something the other day that has my head spinning anyway.

But David Warlick goes further. If you decide to abandon or downgrade the textbooks for your classes, and start using the Web instead, you cannot just let the students go on a wild hunt. They will come up with stuff of questionable quality. With a textbook, it's easy - it is a text that is approved by you as a teacher and by your colleagues who wrote it, edited it, and promoted it to institutions and school districts. Students know that the textbook is to be trusted, thus they do not need to learn the skills of critically evaluating it. But if they have to find their own sources, they need to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff:

We teach from textbooks, from reference books, from journals, online databases, and from our own educated expertise. It's part of our arsenal, as teachers, to help us instill confidence in the sources of that which we are teaching. I'm not saying that textbooks, reference books, and commercial databases are bad, and that we shouldn't use them. They are enormously valuable. But we're missing something that's very important when we rely so exclusively on carefully packaged content and then lament that our students and children rely so readily on Google.

We have to practice what we preach, and we have to practice it out loud!

At the same time that we continue to use our textbooks (or what ever they evolve into), reference works, databases, and our own expertise, we should also bring in, at every opportunity, content and resources that we have found, evaluated, processed, and prepared for teaching and learning, and that we should include conversations about how we found it, evaluated, and processed it. If the are seeing us, every day, asking the questions that are core to being literate today, then perhaps they will not only develop the skills of critical evaluation, but also the habits.

The discussion in the comments is quite contentious there, actually. What do you think?

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I'm really surprised the open-source movement hasn't done much in the textbook area. I suppose the thinking is, if you're going to write a substantial chunk of scientific text, you may as well get paid for it. Still, I looked around at physical chemistry open-source efforts this summer, and was disappointed.

I teach through open-source PowerPoints, and I routinely access Wikipedia in class to show scientific biographies, etc.. But I still set a text, because the students need one, and the various bits I've scribbled over the years are very far from being anything they can use.

Where I work and go to school there is not much of a used text book market for the upper level science books. Most of us keep them. The value of a good science text book is that it should be valid on most things for many years. I use my Jepson Manual just about every week. It is a plant key for vascular plants of CA but was also a 'text book' for a class.

Need to get going, and grab my Boher entomology text book (and key) and get to work pinning some insects and iding them.