Save Some Money but Lose Some Learning: The Dilemma of the E-Text

Nothing brings home the cost of higher education more than having a child prepare for college. Various studies show the rising costs of tuition and various other studies offer a variety of explanations. Variety might be the spice of life, but it’s also the cause of confusion and consternation.

One thing that is becoming increasingly obvious as we look at tuition and housing bills is that, as a college professor, I’m clearly not getting my cut. Somehow, I’m missing out on this supposed gravy train.

I have a great deal of sympathy for universities. Like everyone else, the basic cost of doing business has increased. Faculty are more expensive, not because our salaries are going up and we are lazy, good for nothing bums, but because the university’s share of our medical costs are increasing and we do, I know it’s a crazy idea, expect a salary appropriate to our educational attainment. Last time I checked, the cost of everyone’s employees is going up. (If you think we are getting rich, the average salary is about $81,000. That’s not chump change and we have a great job, but we aren’t exactly hanging out with Mitt Romney.)

Tuition also rises when light bills increase, insurance goes up, and infrastructure has to be repaired. Enrollment is up and more and more academically challenged students are sitting in our classes. We don’t offer student services because we were lacking things to do around campus. If you want us to educate kids who can barely read, don’t know how to study, have never lived outside mom’s shadow, expect a ribbon just for showing up, and are popping six adderrall a day, we might need some non-faculty support.

It’s also not cheap to provide first class technology across campus, and, contrary to popular belief, online and distance education classes are difficult to deliver and expensive to do really well. Sure, you can scale a lecture out to 25,000 people but who is going to grade the essays or visit with the students? Faculty and students still need the tools to take and deliver the class.

Oh, and by the way, most of those large scale online programs are being funded with either start-up funds (that’s business speak for investment dollars) or public funds from universities ($50 million from U Texas). If online education was so cheap, why is the University of Phoenix tuition has high as Harvard’s? Western Governor’s tuition is the same as my university’s tuition. Online education, warts and all, can be (as Allison Morris argues, an effective way to teach and learn, but for the most part, we only cost more only if a student lives on campus.

I’ll willing admit I have no solution to reeling in high ed costs.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t create some savings for students. Most universities estimate textbook costs at around $600-$800 per semester. Considering that most of our students don’t read very many books (if any) prior to showing up, books costs are a pretty big shock.

We do, though, have the power to reduce the cost of books and, correspondingly, provide some measure of relief for our students. I stopped requiring textbooks in my freshman composition classes 5 years ago. Everything you ever needed to know about grammar is available online and, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, so are most of the greatest essays ever written. Even better–there are good examples of top notch writing and thinking available free every day on that world wide web thingy.

Even better, there are now a variety of open educational resources that exist. Notably, OpenStax, Connexions, and Lumen Learning all have systems in place that can reduce or eliminate textbook costs for students in their first two years of college. I realize that $600 a semester might not be important to everyone, but in my world that’s a nice chunk of savings.

Savings here we come!

Maybe.

The problem, Ferris Jabr argues in “The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens,” is that “screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done.” In essence, there is a growing body of data that e-readers create reading experiences that are less complete and actually might “inhibit reading comprehension. . . . people understand what they read on paper more thoroughly than what they read on screens.”

Now, this isn’t really an issue if you are reading Michael Connelly (no offense to Connelly or his readers. I love his novels), but if you are reading your Physics textbook, Shakespeare, or all about chemical compounds online, we might have some issues.

Fortunately, according to many higher ed critics students aren’t learning anything anyway (see Academically Adrift) so maybe we should just save the money regardless.

Contrary to what some of our critics think, though, most of my colleagues care whether the students learn. We want them to retain the information and apply their knowledge both on our tests and in their future, tax paying (remember I work at a publicly funded university supported by taxpayers), careers.

Such studies regarding comprehension of e-texts might have implications for any kind of screen reading associated with education. Perhaps, we need to begin paying more attention to comprehension in online classes and carefully crafting classes that don’t simply rely on reading text on the screen. We already know that the best online classes involve far more than passively digesting information (another reason good distance ed classes take time to build). We also know that hybrid courses, those that blend online and face to face are highly effective, blending the the virtual and the real, tactile experience of the classroom.

In the meantime, I guess I need to keep digging in the couch cushions for textbook money and hold off on buying that kindle for my son.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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