A University of Wisconsin Oshkosh professor who recalls his own days in line at the college bookstore created an electronic textbook that already has saved as much as $1 million in student book costs.
M. Ryan Haley, in 2009, received a Federal Department of Education grant to write a core concepts electronic textbook for economic and business statistics.
The textbook, The Core Concepts of Economic and Business Statistics, was first used in the UW Oshkosh economics department in Fall 2010 and remains in use today. Instead of needing to spend $200-$300 on a book, it has been free to students in a 2.2 MB pdf version and $18 if printed on campus at Copy This! in a 278-page spiral-bound option. The price covers the Copy This! costs.
“Over the last few years, we’re probably approaching 3,800 to 3,900 students who have been in classes that have used this book,” said Chad Cotti, economics department chair.
The standard hardcover book that previously was used currently sells for $280 new. Multiplying $250 by 4,000 students means as much as $1 million saved, though this figure would be somewhat lower if used versions of the text had been available to all students.
“By the end of this year (a sum of) $800,000 to $1 million will be saved by students because Ryan took on this project,” Cotti concluded, adding that each year the book is used, more savings are generated.
The textbook creation process was funded by a $290,000 federal grant. The project involved more than 30 faculty members, staff, students and external reviewers.
The savings to students now far exceed the cost of development.
“Here was an investment in Ryan,” Cotti said, “that led to large savings for students.”
The project was a true win-win, in that students are saving money and soaking up the information. Haley emphasized that the book is concise and has plenty of real-life examples. It is designed to be easily readable.
Haley, in the opening chapter, points out that many statements people make in life have statistical undertones.
“Phrases like ‘the Packers are probably going to win’ or ‘there’s no way you can dunk a basketball’ or ‘I’m just not sure that this romantic relationship is what I really want,’” he said, “exemplify the skepticism of the human mind and its built-in thirst for information that can help make decisions. You have reasons for believing that the Packers might lose; you judge anyone who claims they can dunk a basketball by their height and apparent athleticism; and the words and actions of your partner as well as feedback from your friends and family help you determine the viability of a relationship. The process of collecting and leveraging information is inextricably intertwined with decisions we face in our personal and professional lives.”
Haley said statistics is about the process of “seeking out, organizing and distilling” information relevant to a decision. Economic and business statistics utilize math-based tools that allow professionals to make judgement calls on such decisions as raising or lowering price or whether a widened-highway is warranted, among countless other examples.
The statistics problems included within the book’s chapters were devised by members of departments within the UW Oshkosh College of Business–people the students will be taking classes from later in their major(s). Questions discuss how statistics are used in life and career decisions. Economics and business students are able to get ideas about how they’ll use statistics when they get into classes pertaining to their declared major of study.
Unlike many standard textbooks, the answers have relatively thorough explanations. And students benefit from numerous hyperlinks contained in the book created with the LaTeX software program – a free and very powerful word-processing program often used in math-based disciplines.
“LaTeX is particularly useful for managing large-scale documents, especially when many figures and math expressions are necessary,” Haley said.
Questions relate to local and regional areas of interest.
“A lot of economic and business professors consult in the Fox Valley and they bring some of their experiences into the book,” Haley said. “If we can tighten those connections (with potential employers) the students have an increased advantage when seeking internships and jobs.”
There is pre- and post-test analysis done about knowledge accumulated before and after the book was used.
“This book was giving better outcomes—even as compared to the traditional textbook,” Haley said. “It really worked better than I would have imagined. We generated excellent costs savings and better learning outcomes for students.”
Haley emphasized that there are “zero royalties” coming into his hands or to the department because of the book.
“We get nothing,” he said. “I received a federal grant to create it.”
There are about eight versions of the book: one for each of the professors who has taught the class. Each has had the ability to fine-tune the book to their preference and electronically arrange it in the section and chapter order they desire, or even include sections of their own.
Students who keep the free electronic version or pay the $18 for a spiral-bound print version, are able to use the book in higher-level courses or in their careers. Haley estimates there have been about 10 instances in which former students contacted him about re-emailing the book–and he’s happy to do so.
“These are the type of things we need to be louder about,” Haley said. “The economic and business statistics book worked out really well. That said, there are other ways to lower textbook costs without harming learning outcomes; different approaches may work better in different courses. This worked well in our case, and has promise in selected other areas.”
Renting option can bring textbook costs down
It used to be that students would need to decide whether to purchase new books or used books, but now there are some additional options: to rent new or used; or to purchase online versions.
Kathy Kaltenbach, UW Oshkosh bookstore director, said updates to their systems are allowing them to look at more book titles for rent.
“If students rent, it’s a significant difference in pricing,” she said, noting rental prices are about 60 percent of the cost of a new book. In the bookstore, an economics book that costs $206 to purchase new, may be rented for $123.75.
Kaltenbach said the bookstore has increased its rental options from about 15 titles to around 100.
“Those titles equaled over 2,700 books that were rented for fall semester,” she said. “This was a cumulative cost saving for our students of approximately $100,000, as compared to if they would have had to purchase them.”
The downside of renting, though, is the inability to highlight or mark the text or keep it for future reference.
Kaltenbach said she believes a group of people with mixed interests in textbooks, will come together –perhaps the first part of the second semester–to discuss options and ways to keep costs down.
“We’re doing everything that is most economical for the students,” she said. “We understand how expensive it is for students to attend college. We’re totally mindful of that.”