Take the chemistry department’s cue

These days, walk into the Co-op and it seems as if all 50,000 UT students are there, buying books for fall classes. But nearly 4,000 students enrolled in an entry-level chemistry classes will have one less book to buy because the chemistry department no longer requires students to purchase textbooks for large lecture courses like Chemistry 301 and 302. Instead, coursework and materials will be accessible online.

The chemistry department should be applauded. Online course material doesn’t suit all courses as well as it fits math and science, but paying for textbooks causes pain. And, in this case, the substituted online materials have useful features, like showing a professor what was least understood about last night’s homework by aggregating scores. Everyone loves discussing how expensive textbooks have become. In coming years, in appropriate classes, textbooks should be replaced by online coursework, and the costs associated with the beginning of the semester will likely decrease, if only to be replaced by rising tuition.

According to the Student Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit student lobbying group, U.S. college students are expected to spend roughly $800 each on textbooks and other course materials this year. Those figures haven’t changed much in the last several years despite supposed better deals from online booksellers and textbook rental providers. A range of cost-saving solutions have been suggested from e-textbooks to laws allowing students more time to shop for books by requiring university faculty to release course syllabi at least 30 days before the start of classes each semester. Still, standard operating procedure remains: Fork over cash in a bookstore, or click the “submit order” button online, and find yourself with a heavier backpack and lighter wallet.

While few students are likely to complain about measures that potentially reduce the amount of money they must spend on course materials, no single measure has yet resulted in a significant reduction of costs. Rather than asking how to make textbooks more affordable, the more pertinent question may be why, in 2012, universities still require textbooks at all when other means of knowledge delivery have proven more effective.

When students leave Professors Cynthia Labrake and David Vanden Bout’s CHEM 301 class this semester, they won’t be lugging heavy textbooks with them. Instead of mindlessly thumbing through pages too full of information to be digested, before the next class they’ll visit a website custom-built for UT’s introductory chemistry courses. The website, combined with the Quest online homework service developed by the UT College of Natural Sciences, gives students a more convenient and effective way to do class work, while providing faculty with richer insight into students’ progress, a feature that is often lacking in large lecture courses.

While chemistry students may pay less for their online learning tools, Quest, which is developed and maintained by the college, represents a significant investment. The website was funded as part of a larger program meant to re-imagine introductory chemistry courses sponsored by the Office of the Provost’s Course Transformation Initiative. The website fits the goals of the program because it provides students with a learning medium that is more interactive and engaging than what is usually offered by traditional textbooks.

This fall will be the second semester that Professors Labrake and Vanden Bout have piloted a “transformed” chemistry course, and both say that students in last semester’s course were overwhelmingly pleased with the website and homework program. While they point out that a textbook is still a good reference source for students, both professors question the wisdom of allowing a textbook’s content to guide a course’s curriculum.

Though we may begin each semester with high hopes of reading every or most of the assignments listed on our course syllabi, by the time we’re handing over our credit cards to the cashiers at the Co-op, we’ve already accepted that we’re paying hundreds of dollars for textbooks that most of us will crack open only a handful of times throughout the semester. In chemistry, physical textbooks are more expensive and less useful than the online replacements. It would behoove UT administrators to determine in which other courses such is the case.