Chief Science Correspondent
The practice of using highly overpriced textbooks for classroom instruction is becoming an increasingly outdated component of the university science system.
The average college student will spend about $1,200 per year on textbooks, according to a January 2014 study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The cost of textbooks has risen an estimated 82 percent over the past decade, three times the rate of inflation.
Many students simply cannot afford to match these prices. And most won't. Many students will order used textbooks this year, purchasing them through their university bookstore or third-party providers such as Chegg or Amazon. However, the problem goes much deeper.
The problem is that textbook providers will update their texts approximately every three and a half years, according to a 2004 report. Often, these "new" editions will include a few extra side photographs, a new chapter and a revised introduction.
This new textbook will sell for $150. And that older edition you just bought two years ago? Forget selling it back to your bookstore. My university bookstore tended to give fairly good deals (30 to 50 percent) when it came to selling back used textbooks - as long as the book hadn't been updated.
For many students, a viable solution is to simply buy the older, now "worthless" editions from Amazon. The 2001 textbook, which might go for $5 or $10, is probably almost identical to the original. I was initially reluctant to buy old textbooks, as I had always heard the horror stories of students failing classes because they could not find the right page numbers or practice problems due to edition inconsistencies.
In my experience, most science professors know and expect that some of their students will be buying old textbooks. Many directly (although unofficially) encouraged it.
The problem is that science research is happening in real time; new discoveries are being made every day that redefine even the basics of biology, physics and astronomy. New science textbooks are already outdated the day that they come out.
The answer is not to keep making more and more new textbooks, but to find better ways to update them. A good place to start would be for textbook companies to offer a free e-book with the purchase of a paper textbook. The e-book would come with interactive diagrams, videos, and links to supplemental texts, and all the information could be constantly updated to reflect new information yielded in scientific laboratories.
However, there be an even better solution. Nearly all of the information taught in a basic biology course - or even a more advanced course - is available online for free. YouTube has massed more scientific information than any single introductory textbook, and it has all been generated by users who have a passion for making the information readily available for those who want it.
I took two upper-level biology courses last year that were both partially discussion-based. In both classes, the professor did not assign a textbook. Our discussions stemmed from the peer-reviewed scientific articles that we found online. And when we needed help with more basic, background concepts, we turned to Google and Wikipedia for quick answers. These websites might not be perfect, but when used properly they are extremely valuable.
Although paper textbooks still offer value within science education, it is impractical for a student to spend thousands of dollars to receive information that is already free.