This Is How Textbooks Die

Last Friday, one pitch on the ABC show Shark Tank caught my attention. The company is called Packback Books and its founders have a totally new approach to digital textbooks that will probably be great for college students financially, but could be a disaster for them academically.

If you think students rarely open their books now, just wait until Packback Books gets ahold of them. The company is allowing students to rent their books on an as-needed basis for five bucks a day.

This crushes the traditional textbook purchasing/rental method which, according to the two young entrepreneurs from Packback, charges students unnecessarily for textbooks. Even renting a digital textbook can set students back $100 or more for one semester. It’s really a terrible deal, considering students can buy the book for not much more. Textbook rental companies have been taking advantage of the fact that students have no alternative. So they jack up the rental prices.

Watch Whatever Whenever

Retro BetaMax ad: “Watch Whatever Whenever.” Packback Books lets students read whatever whenever, for only $5 a day.

First, let me say I agree with the premise proffered by the guys at Packback. I know I paid for books that I barely used in college. Often we read only a couple chapters from the textbook and we paid an exorbitant fee for the right to do so. Doesn’t seem right.

However, the preliminary user statistics gathered by the Packback beta test really scares me. They’re running a closed beta at Illinois State University and it seems to be going pretty well.

But here’s the shocker. Prepare yourself.

Students in the Packback Book beta test are only renting their books for an average of 4 days each semester.

Four days to cram in all the required information of an entire semester. How much you want to bet those four days correspond exactly with the four major exams?

There is no possible way students are actually learning the information during these cram sessions. They are just memorizing what they need and then regurgitating it for the tests.

Not only that, but what the heck are they doing for the rest of the semester? Aren’t there any daily assignments?

If our semester-long classes can be boiled down to just four days of cramming, we’re clearly doing something wrong. It doesn’t even matter what discipline the course is in. Surely there’s something missing in order for this practice to be possible.

It may not matter, though, because billionaire Mark Cuban invested $250,000 in the company. I actually happen to like Mark Cuban and I know he’s interested in education because he’s invested in it pretty heavily–usually in educational technology companies, however, which I rarely trust farther than I can throw.

Anyway though, with Cuban’s backing and advice, I bet Packback will soon be coming to a campus near you. I guess we should start preparing our courses for daily book rentals.

Those of us who teach literature may not have much to worry about yet because our books are still cheaper than renting. Probably worth thinking about, nonetheless.

I guess we, as professors, could make more daily assignments from the textbooks, thereby requiring more regular use. This would challenge the cost effectiveness of the Packback model.

But I have to say I’m not a huge fan of that idea. I like seeing textbooks get more affordable for students and I don’t want to fight that. I think a better plan would be to just roll with it and create more assignments that don’t require the book at all.

There are tons of free resources on the internet. Just about every poem and short story I teach is available for free online. I’ve pretty much just embraced the idea of letting my students find their texts online whenever possible. Might as well.

I guess it wouldn’t be much of a leap to condense our assigned readings from the primary course reader down to a couple days so my students can just rent the book as needed. The key will be supplementing those rental days with lots of free materials so students have to work more than four freaking days each semester.