Overpriced and overrated: Learning without textbooks

2_26_2013 Textbooks ComicFour hundred dollars goes a long way if you’re a college student. I slipped into an experiment in my own education last quarter by forgetting to buy my course textbooks on time, then consciously deciding not to buy them at all. When I finished the quarter with an A in both of my 5-credit courses, cognitive psychology and propaganda, I decided to expand my experiment into this quarter, and subsequently saved  $393.60 in book prices, assuming I purchased used books from Bellevue College’s bookstore. Books for three five-credit classes can add up to quite a bill.

I got the idea to extend my disorganization into an intentional financial decision after taking Tim Linnemann’s Contemporary Moral Problems course last summer. Aside from being a phenomenal class in general, Linnemann managed to organize his curriculum completely around open-source materials that he emailed to the class in PDF form. While textbooks for other courses ranged in price from the low $40s to the high $200s, our philosophy class covered an extraordinary range of ideas and subjects without having to pay a dime.

As it happens, John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant aren’t the only free resources available for students. With a little bit of search-engine familiarity and self-reliance, most of the knowledge in textbooks held hostage by prices bordering on extortion can be found for free in the digital landscape. In fact, YouTube and Wikipedia can inform students faster and more thoroughly on nearly any academic topic than most textbooks. Throw in TED talks, Khan Academy, educational Reddit pages and an academically oriented Twitter-feed and you’re almost guaranteed to be better informed than your average graduate student. All for free, of course.

There might be a number of classes in which you really do have to buy the textbook to learn the material and to get a reasonable grade, but most students vastly overestimate this number. It would be one thing if tuition prices weren’t exponentially skyrocketing on the back of a tough economy, but given the times we live in, it seems perfectly reasonable to make hard cost-benefit tradeoff decisions about whether to spend money on a textbook or not. This becomes especially true when the textbook is minimally used or, as mentioned above, if most or all of the material is available for free online or from the library. For most classes, these decisions become incredibly easy, and not necessarily in the direction book-publishers would like.

What if the teacher uses questions from the book? Well, that’s obviously something worth knowing, but if you plan ahead of time and ask before the first quiz rolls around, you’ll know whether you really need to have that text or not. Who knows, maybe your professor will be willing to come up with their own questions to save students a few bucks. In either case, there’s no harm in asking. In the face of prices often reaching upwards of a dollar per page, it seems to me that it’s always worth checking, and often worth skipping out on altogether.