Friday, 12 April 2013

Textbooks: University of Cantabria, a different model

It's midterm exam time at the University of Cantabria; a good time to look at the exchange experience and report on Corin's findings so far.

Note:  This post is about textbooks.    (A separate post discusses other aspects of the exchange experience).  

One of the first things Corin noticed was that there is no bookstore at the University of Cantabria.  No textbooks to buy.  Instead, professors write course materials and post them online, supplementing them with texts that they list in a 'bibliography' (the last item on the syllabus).  These texts are available in the library; enough copies for everyone taking the class.  Students aren't required to use these books, but they are available for those who want to review the information from a different source or do further reading.  The library books are old; for example, the statistics book is from 1998, but the students' text book cost for most classes is zero.  Nor are there any 'access codes' to buy for 'online homework.'  See the chart below for details of the texts for Corin's four classes.

Language of instruction
Number of students
Professor e-mails a pdf chapter (written by him) every 2-3 weeks, as well as worksheets.  Text books available in library.
Partial differential equations
Professor posts link to his website where the materials are available.  Text books (one of which was written by him) are in the library
Professor provided pdf format of a book (written by him).  Text books available in the library. 
Spanish for engineers
The professor wrote the textbook and students buy it from him for 20 euros.  He also gives them worksheets.

Not wanting to base this blog post solely on the experience of one exchange student, or limit it to math/science classes, I next spoke to Carmen.  Carmen is a student in the physical therapy program, in her third year of four at the University of Cantabria.  She's currently on internship with my physical therapist, so we've had plenty of opportunities to chat.  Today, we chatted about text books.   She told me that in three years, she has only bought one text book, Anatomy, for 100 euros (about 130 dollars).  She said that this purchase was optional; she chose to buy the newest edition.  Many of her classmates bought older editions for as low as 10 euros, and others haven't bought a book at all;  they use the ones available in the library.  The library books are older, but as she pointed out, the human body doesn't change every two years, so why should the textbook?  Other than this one (optional) purchase, she has spent no money on textbooks in three years.  Instead, like Corin, she uses the books in the library and prints the materials that her professors write and post online.

I thought about how a similar system might work at Valencia.  I teach EAP reading, writing, speaking/listening, and grammar.  As I would guess is the case in other disciplines, there are some materials I can find or write myself and post online (for example, reading passages), and others that would be more difficult and time-consuming to generate (for example, grammar exercises).  However, grammar, like the human body, doesn't change too much.  Therefore, a starting point for a discussion on textbook policy might be a model where professors find or write materials for topics that need to be up-to-date, while having class sets of older edition textbooks available in the library for topics that don't change much over time.

Which brings us to pricing.  In the library at the University of Cantabria, some books are available in English and Spanish.  In these cases, the English language editions, like the one pictured here from Corin's statistics class, are marked 'international edition' and 'not for sale in the USA' It looks like what is happening, then, is that publishers print two identical, or almost identical, English language versions of a text book.  One is the 'international edition', not for sale in USA, and the other is the USA edition (the latest edition of the UC library book pictured here is currently available on Amazon for $230).  Here's another example:  There are 50 plus copies of Corin's physics text book available in the UC library; a later edition of the same book is being used at UCF and costs $278.   Looks like there's a lot of money to be made in text books, then, depending on what country you live in.  And large profit margins leave plenty of room for 'middlemen' to come in and take a piece of the pie.  Only this week I received an e-mail from a 'book buyer' wanting to buy my inspection copies in order to resell them.  Read this debate on the issue; the 'no' side explains how many links in the supply chain profit from this practice.  The 'yes' side argues that publishers can afford it.  Either way, the students pay, through higher textbook prices.  

Carmen told me she has friends enrolled in other degree programs at UC, and that their text book experience is the same as hers and Corin's.  'If we had to buy textbooks', she shared, 'we wouldn't be able to go to university.  It wouldn't be possible.'

UPDATE, May 9, 2013:  Today I spoke with Juncal Garcia Martínez, professor of English at the University of Cantabria.  The university doesn't have an official text book policy, it's up to each individual teacher, but in most cases, there are no text books.  Instead, 'students take notes.'  Her 'Legal English' class is an exception; there is a text book that costs 30 euros (about 38 dollars).  This is considered to be very expensive, and it's understood that it would be difficult for students to afford this book.  Therefore, the university has purchased copies of the newest edition and placed them in the library so that students don't need to buy it.  

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