Are Language Textbooks a Scam for Students?

It used to be that university students taking language courses would buy a textbook and a workbook for a university course. The prices were high, but they could buy used copies. A student who wanted to sell his or her book later would be careful to do the workbook in pencil so it could be erased later.

Nowadays, textbooks companies have gone all high tech. They’re encouraging teachers to do away with “old fashioned paper workbooks” in favor of an online version. The teacher needs a course code. The students need a book code. Only the magical combination of both codes will allow students access to their high tech web student activity manual.

The scam? All of these codes have expiry dates. Students who bought a second-hand book have no access to the online activity manual, unless they cough up about $100 for their own personal book code. $100 for a code? Seriously? I have students who simply can not afford this and as a result, there is no way for them to access their homework activities.

To boot, the textbook takes a communicative approach, which is super for in class, but offers little in the way of activities to assign for homework. The homework is supposed to come from the web-based activity manual.

Not all students – even college age students – like the online versions. Anything but a high speed internet connection is insufficient to use the fancy web-based versions. Students complain about difficulties setting up their online accounts and some give up even before they get to do their first activity. Their frustration levels escalate.

The textbook rep comes in to do a demo. Everything works perfectly in his presentation and students are encouraged to try again.

Here it is the end of the semester and I still have students who haven’t done any online activities. When I ask them why, they sheepishly say they find the web versions cumbersome. Either that, or they simply can’t afford the $100 for a book code. A search for old, used workbooks has ensued so they can have paper versions to work from.

I’ve been giving them activities and materials I’ve developed myself over the years. These used to be “extra practice”, but for the students who have no other way to reinforce what we do in class, they have become their only option.

Some students are very tech-savvy, very into mobile learning. Some still like paper-and-pen activities. Others may like technology, but be cash poor. Our job as educators should be to make it easy for them to learn, not more cumbersome.

At least when we bought paper versions of books and workbooks, they were ours to keep for as long as we wanted, not until the textbook publisher decided that they expired and cut off our access to them. At best, they became outdated, but they didn’t disappear into thin air. I’m a huge fan of technology, but not when it becomes a barrier to my students’ learning.


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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

5 Responses to Are Language Textbooks a Scam for Students?

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BELTfree, Sarah Elaine Eaton. Sarah Elaine Eaton said: Language Textbooks a Scam for Students?: […]

  2. Kurt says:

    Back when I was in Uni, there seeme to be a small rebellion among the profs… They all started to offer a full copy of their “Lecture Notes” in print which they offered to us for a small cost (to cover the printing). All the texts were available on reserve at the library for reference. They did this because the cost of textbooks were heading though the roof, and usually they wanted to use multiple textbooks for their classes.

    Offering lecture notes and alternatives to students might be even easier now with the current state of technology… maybe it is time for another rebellion among the profs?

  3. S. Hoenle says:

    Bravo, Sarah!!!
    Actually all of the textbook publishing companies seem to be doing it – many of them use the same company for their online materials. I agree: shame on them.

  4. That is flat out wrong and the company that is doing that should be ashamed of themselves. It’s hard enough to pay for college without having to pay for extra codes and things. I understand the need to make a profit, but not at the expense of students being able to get the education they have already paid for.

    • Agreed. They are, however, one of the biggest textbook companies in north America. On our campus alone, they sell books to 11 sections of introductory Spanish, with 30-35 students in each section. That’s over 350 students in one intro course on one campus. Multiply that by dozens of other campuses across Canada and the United States and you’re looking at thousands, if not tens of thousands of students who are in the same boat.

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