Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Cost of a Good Education

Ask any college student about the rising costs of textbooks, and they'll tell you what a racket the industry has going. A few decades ago, textbooks were used for approximately 3-5 years before a new edition was released. This gave educators time to develop strong ties with the material and design their courses accordingly. Now, it is common for new revisions to come out every year or even every semester.

In many cases, nothing has changed about the book except for the picture on the cover. I often wonder if textbook companies are truly meeting the needs of their customers, or if they are just tacking on bells and whistles in order to justify their price hikes?

It was not that long ago that I got my first textbook that came with a CD-ROM disc. The disc didn't have much on it, just a couple of lectures related to the subject of the book. It didn't add much value to the book itself. In fact, I think most of the textbooks that come with CD-ROMs and DVDs and other "enhanced content" end up staying in the package for the whole semester. The teachers don't assign it and so the kids don't use it. The Macroeconomics book I purchased last semester came with a special insert promoting the "iPod Ready Videos" the publisher now has available on its website. I never looked at them.

I guess the idea of all these multimedia extras are to reach out to students who don't gravitate towards books. Honestly, I cannot imagine that learning about inflation and the production possibilities curve would be any more fun on an iPod than to read from a book. No matter how you present the material, it's the same dull information. The more you produce of one good, the less you can theoretically produce of some other good. That part does not change.

Imagine an alchemist in some medieval kingdom, trying in his workshop to spin lead into gold. While he may succeed in producing something that looks like gold, or feels like gold, at the end of the day it simply cannot be done. No matter what package it comes in, it's still lead. Such is the case with transforming a textbook onto a disc. It might appear different, but if it's the same information then it's no more exciting than a real book.

Perhaps the demand for multimedia teaching is a response to the short attention spans of students these days. After growing up hooked to the TV, video games, and computers, most kids these days have an attention span somewhere between that of a horsefly and a commercial break. Blame the media, blame the parents, blame the schools and the families and even the soft drink companies. After all, you've got to blame somebody, right?

Call me old fashioned, but I don't need any of this new-age garbage. I can listen to a lecture from a real professor and take notes for sixty minutes and it won't kill me. I can read a freaking book and identify the meaning without having an actor explain it to me. Knowledge lies in finding the answers for yourself, and not in having someone tell them to you.

Somehow humanity was able to transfer knowledge from person to person for two millenia before we had iPod-ready video lectures and interactive multimedia junk. I wish textbook manufacturers would cut the crap already and just make good, affordable books. If the web-two-point-oh generation of today can't handle paying attention in lecture for an hour, then that's their problem. Maybe school is just not the place for them. My blood is already boiling; don't even get me started on the ridiculousness of online classes...