Yesterday, “Diogenes” wrote in the comments of my post on Courseload that if I had a problem with what that company did, then I should contact the company and talk to them about it. Turns out I didn’t have to as CEO Mickey Levitan called on the phone me this morning.
It was a very useful and civil conversation with someone whose firm I called a “money-sucking parasite,” so I’d like to begin my second post on Courseload by officially taking that quote back. While I didn’t get anything factually wrong about Courseload, there is one thing I didn’t realize (because it’s not at all clear on their website or in any of the press I read about the service): Courseload is opt-in at the professor level. If you don’t want to use digitized books in your class, you are not required to do so. Therefore, there is still a way out if prices get too high, namely go back to paper copies. Therefore, student backpacks are still going to be rather heavy for the foreseeable future. Honestly, I can live with that, but it was good to hear another perspective.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about our conversation with was the differences between the two paradigms in which we both operate. Mickey’s primary concern is clearly with the kinds of classes that tend to use a single textbook that really can cost hundreds of dollars, like those in biology or business. In these instances, I can certainly see how an electronic alternative could really help bring down prices.
The most interesting trait in these kinds of disciplines is that the content of the text really doesn’t seem to matter that much. I found this study (.pdf) from Indiana University (which just signed a deal with Courseload) when I was Googling around looking for faculty reaction to Courseload there:
In general, the faculty believe that many students do not read the text unless forced to do so. In some cases, faculty do not expect them to; they basically say that they will not test on things not in their lectures (thought the book may help them understand material in the lectures. Others use CLIP [which seems to be the way Courseload’s e-texts are presented] to promote reading of the text in a variety of ways. In some cases students are required to annotate the text based on particular questions asked by the instructor. In other cases, the instructor will insert annotations that offer extra points if the students respond to the annotation (may be simply acknowledging they saw it or it could be a very short extra credit paper.) One instructor inserted a comment saying the first 10 people to respond to having seen this post will get extra credit – only 8 people ever responded.
So if you have no intention of making students actually read what you’re assigning, by all means let them buy the cheaper electronic copy. If all their reading is at home and not a central part of the classroom experience, by all means let them buy the cheaper electronic copy. And thank you Courseload for recognizing the fact that all texts (electronic or otherwise) need page numbers, which is something that I’ve complained about before.
However, I still think e-texts, especially e-texts grouped into a single platform, are a horrible way to organize any course in which those texts are at the center of classroom pedagogy. If I want to discuss a passage in the middle of a 500-page book, all students have to do now is flip to it. At worst, I’d have to say, “Look about a third of the way down the page.” How much maneuvering would it take a student to find that passage on their phone?
More importantly, who really wants to read an entire 500-page book on their phone, or even their laptop? I love Google Books because it gives me access to thousands of texts that I wouldn’t get a chance to read otherwise without ordering them up ILL, assuming their home libraries would even let them go on loan. However, if I’m planning to read the whole thing from start to finish, there’s no way I would ever choose to read it on a screen of any kind if I had a paper alternative. Don’t we spend enough time staring at screens at work as it is?
Another problem that I still have with Courseload is that, as I predicted, setting up the service requires enough lead time to get permission from publishers to put their content in electronic form and deliver it through their platform. And that assumes they give permission at all. I don’t know about you all, but I change multiple texts every single semester in just about every course I teach. I need that level of added bureaucracy like I need a hole in the head. It’s also pretty clear that Mickey and I are never going to agree on the significance of electronic distractions (i.e. the ability of students to check Facebook while they’re supposed to be listening to you), which he is prone to underplay.
What bothers me the most though about Courseload’s business model is that it’s aimed primarily at administrations rather than individual professors. Yes, individual professors can opt-in or decline at IU…for now…but what happens when someone’s dean tells an untenured or adjunct faculty member that they should use Courseload because it saves their students money (which the administration can then make them spend on higher tuition rather than the other costs of life)? There’s voluntary and then there’s the appearance of voluntary. I am simply not comfortable with anyone other than faculty having any role in book adoption decisions. Period.
At the end of our conversation, Mickey challenged me to come up with a system of integrating e-texts into a humanities classroom that would address my concerns. Since (as anyone who reads this blog regularly already knows) I’m not a Luddite, I accepted. It may take me a while. It might take more than one post for me to work it out. Still, I promise to give it a try somewhere down the road, after this current semester is finally over.