The Trouble with Course Readers

Many professors, especially those teaching article-heavy classes in the social sciences, skip textbooks entirely, opting to offer course readers instead. Course readers mix together articles, notes and textbook clippings that are directly related to the course. They are updated frequently and cost about $30 to around $80, which compared to the price of a new textbook is cheap–though they can go up above a hundred depending on the course. They are specifically designed for that course, usually by professors, which reduces the cost of wasted, unread pages.

The Stanford Flipside blog has a graphic opinion on course reader prices

Looking from that standpoint, readers seem like an easy, cheap and smart alternative to textbooks. Unfortunately, readers come with as many flaws as they do perks. The largest flaw? They can’t be resold. Textbook retailers are uninterested, and while you might get a few bucks from a future student, but course readers can change each year.

Another very simple flaw is that most of the information in readers can be found online, more often than not, for free. The cost of course readers comes from printing costs, but more than that, reprint fees that professors pay in order to reproduce the article or page in print. But when many news sites have free archives online, and most schools offer some sort of academic journal collection free for students, it’s a tough sell. Couldn’t students just click links for free?

Granted, this argument is more applicable to journalism or other social science classes where newspaper clippings or journal articles make up the majority of the course reader. Anytime a textbook is reproduced, it becomes a legal issue.

One of the better solutions we’ve found is offered by Flat World Knowledge, who you might remember from our great conversation with Eric Frank. They provide free textbooks online, but what’s really great is that teachers can edit the textbook to add in things, essentially creating a reader but for free and online. If students want to download the textbook in any form, there is a fee, but in today’s wifi-enabled world, savvy students can get away with the online version and paying nothing.

As they put it succinctly on their site, FWK eliminates the choice students make between buying expensive textbooks (or readers) and going without. This is the decision more and more students are making, or creating less-than-legal ways to get around. One student told me that he hadn’t bought a textbook once in college. One person would download an e-book or buy a textbook, and copy it for the rest of the class. Illegal? Sure. But also free.

Instead of being in denial of these student price woes, online tools like FWK try to adapt and thrive in this environment. As more and more online tools develop and are used by teachers, course readers may phase out entirely, educators opting instead to assign readings via links or uploads on sites like BlackBoard.

The online aspect of new educational tools also makes available a whole new range of videos and interactive media that can’t exist in printed course readers. In summation, tomorrow’s “course readers” and textbooks will work with student desire for affordability and media.

However, course readers do offer a flexibility beyond textbooks. Perhaps they were the first step to the ultimate customizability we may see in the digital future.

Looking for more information on the choices between readers and textbooks? Check out what UCLA students had to say in The Daily Bruin. What do you think about the future of course readers?

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