College textbooks are going the way of Netflix

September 14, 2017

Excerpts from an article by Allison Schrager and Amy X. Wang on Quartz

A new copy of Glenn Hubbard and Tony O’Brien’s widely used introductory economics textbook costs more than some smartphones. The phone can send you to any part of the web and holds access to the sum of human knowledge. The book is about 800 heavy pages of static text.

Yet thousands of college students around the US are shelling out $250 for these books, each semester, wincing at the many hours ahead of trying to make sense of this attempt to distill the global economy into tiny widgets and graphs. It’s a lot of money for what often feels like mind-numbing, low-grade torture. And it’s tradition. Many of their parents did it before them. It is a rite of passage.

Perhaps no more.

Hubbard, dean of Columbia Business School, and O’Brien, his co-author, have spent the last three years transforming their classic textbook into a product that can only be described as “education software.” Hubbard and O’Brien worked with an editor for a year and a half to determine what material would be text, and what was better suited for video or interactives. They then spent the same amount of time testing the book on students and professors. The new, virtual version makes its debut this fall. (And it’s one of the resources Texas A&M professor Jon Meer plans to use for his core undergraduate microeconomics course that is going online-only this year for the first time.)

This is the beginning of the end for college’s least enjoyable semi-annual tradition: when kids at the start of each semester have to trek to the school bookstore and walk out textbook-laden, wallet-light. On average, US college students end up spending about $1,200 on books a year.

For the next generation of students, all those woes may be as obsolete as cassettes and Blu-Ray. Hubbard thinks the new iteration of his textbook—if it can still be called that—will revolutionize teaching and learning. As he sees it, though, the world changed first: Students today already learn differently than their parents did. Kids entering college this fall have grown up with Google (which is 19 years old) and the iPhone (now, 10 years old). They expect content that responds to them.

How they study—and how they pay to do it—will soon look nothing like what it used to.

Pearson will sell these new Hubbard and O’Brien subscriptions—which is what they are—for a $90 a semester. That seems a loss for the company—until you realize that it’s impossible to take the professors’ course without a subscription. An individualized subscription service means every student is required to pay full price, every new semester.

Read the full article on Quartz

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