Textbook costs squeeze students

Two-thirds of college students didn’t buy a textbook last year because of the cost, according to a U.S. PIRG survey. Students average $1,200 per year on books and supplies, estimates the advocacy group, which is pushing for free online learning materials.

CC pilots a no-cost-for-books degree

Business students won’t need to buy books or other materials to earn an associate degree at Virginia’s Tidewater Community College. Faculty have agreed to use “open educational resources.”

Tuning up higher ed

What does a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering mean? What about an associate degree in nursing? Colleges and universities in seven states are “tuning” courses and degree programs, setting clear standards for what graduates in a specific discipline should know and be able to do.

E-textbooks aren’t much cheaper than traditional books. Apple’s iBook app will require students to use an iPad. To really slash rising textbook costs, college students need access to o-books — free or very cheap open-source learning materials — advocates argue.

Duncan pushes e-textbooks

The Obama administration wants an e-textbook in every student’s hand by 2017, writes USA Today.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Education Secretary Arne Duncan wants states to use textbook funding for digital learning materials and tablet computers. They’ll jawbone companies to lower prices to schools.

Administration officials say Web-connected instructional materials help students learn more efficiently and give teachers real-time information on how well kids understand material. “We spend $7 billion a year on textbooks, and for many students around the country, they’re out of date,” Genachowski says. In five years, he predicts, “we could be spending less as a society on textbooks and getting more for it.”

While up-front costs for tablet computers are high — new iPads start at $499 — he says moving from paper to digital “saves a ton of money” in the long run. “We absolutely want to push the process.”

Core Knowledge blogger Robert Pondiscio said the enthusiasm around educational technology is “magical thinking.”

“I wish there was even 10% as much thought as to what is going to come through these devices as in getting them into kids’ hands,” he says. “It’s not a magic bullet. We need to worry about what is on these tablets while they’re sitting in kids’ laps.”

Karen Cator, the U.S. Department of Education’s technology director, says tablet computers will extend the school day and engage students.

In my school days, I’d go home, finish my homework and read for three hours or so. OK, I was not normal, even among my studious friends. But I don’t think that gee-whiz devices will engage kids who don’t read well. Not for long, anyhow.

On a visit to my mother this week, I picked up a 1945 book on teaching remedial reading that must be left over from her master’s program in education back in the ’50s. (It advocates delaying phonics till second grade, after students have memorized a bunch of sight words.) Among the strategies for motivating struggling readers, the author suggested letting them use a typewriter to write the new words they’ve learned. Kids will be excited by the technology, the professor wrote.

I’m sure that e-books are the wave of the future, but schools should be careful not to spend before they’ve figured out how new learning materials will improve learning.  Do students need an iPad? A Kindle or Nook equivalent? Some new, cheaper device not yet available? Yes, publishers will lower prices to compete for market share, but schools need to make sure they’re not locked into one company’s products or blocked from using free open-source materials.

Industry attacks open courseware

Community colleges that receive federal job-training grants are required to share any learning materials developed. But software publishers are lobbying for a new law banning “open educational resources” developed with federal funding.

Also on Community College Spotlight: IBM will help Chicago design new six-year high schools that will combine technical training and college classes leading to an associate degree and an IT job.

Open-source textbooks for $10?

Instead of paying $100 for a commercially published textbook, community college students in Washington state will be able to download open-source textbooks for as little as $10. Faculty members are collaborating on books for the most popular courses.

Also in Community College Spotlight, FIRE blasts a California college’s attempt to prohibit profane, vulgar and “offensive” speech.