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Profs take whack at expensive textbooks

By Clifton B. Parker on July 24, 2009 in University

In the midst of the financial crisis, UC Davis professors are searching for ways to make textbooks more affordable for students.

Expensive, used textbooks have long been a bone of contention among college students. The issue is taking on a greater sense of urgency as the cost of education escalates in the UC system and beyond. The good news is that online tools may help narrow the budget gap on highly expensive textbooks.

Delmar Larson, a professor of chemistry, is developing a chemistry wiki online where students can submit their own material and access contributions from others.

He launched the site in 2008, and it now runs on a standalone server.

“The idea is that chemistry is a relatively old field,” he said. “It has been around for a long time -- some of the content of the textbooks we teach in our classes has not changed for decades.”

It is not always reasonable to make students pay for a book that has not changed for several years, Larsen added. So he decided to research an alternative to expensive textbooks.

“I did not have time to write my own textbook, so I took advantage of the wiki philosophy where multiple authors contribute to a specific site or resource,” he said. “The idea was to get the students themselves to write the textbook.”

A decade ago, people did not think it was a viable option for multiple people to contribute to one core source, Larsen said. However, Wikipedia has recently demonstrated that this system can work in certain circumstances.

The upshot of the wiki project is to essentially create a textbook that is written by the students, he said. One of the key points of the project is to include all of chemistry in the text.

“No one would create a textbook that included all elements of chemistry,” Larsen said. “We are doing it slowly, and bringing in other schools -– community colleges and other universities -– to bring it up to speed.”

Larsen is trying to get students directly involved in the project, rather than have all of his class texts controlled by staff and faculty.

So far, student response to Larsen’s chemistry wiki has been positive. He said that students have said that they benefit from contributing to and learning from the wiki.

Andrew Waldron, vice chair for undergraduate matters and professor in mathematics, is also evaluating affordable textbook alternatives.

“We see various things happening to students,” Waldron said. “Students have to spend a lot of money on textbooks, and publishers will come out with a new version of the textbook, but really they are just playing around with the used book market.”

When publishers create new editions of textbooks, the content is often the same, but some of the sections are rearranged, or slightly altered, he said. Perhaps the campus can play a role in bringing classroom content to students.

“Where possible, we would like to produce our own materials which could supplement or take the place of a textbook,” Waldron said. “We also want to look at situations where we can improve the material being used in classes.”

For example, the mathematics department looks at course syllabi to evaluate how well the books are being used whether new or supplemental material should be created, Waldron said.

Historically, the job of textbooks has been to get information to students but also to create a product that was aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, he said. Today, the Internet can help in creating new material and, in some cases, lessening the need for expensive print publishing products.

“Creating an online text is also dynamic –- we find things that work well and things that don’t,” Waldron said. “We can fix mistakes, add exercises, it’s good for the visibility of our department in general because the more material we put online, the more other departments can use it.”

However, despite the innovative appeal of online textbooks, some students believe that something is lost in not having a hard copy of a book.

“If online textbooks were a lot cheaper, I would probably want to use them,” said Keiko Narasaki, an animal science major and current summer school student. “But I think a lot of people like to have something to hold and read –- a lot of students still print up homework assignments and reading materials so they can have it in hand.”

Waldron said that he and several other math professors are planning to experiment with online texts to supplement their own class notes.

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Caitlin Cobb is a News Service intern.

Media contact(s)

Clifton B. Parker, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,