Beginning next semester, students will be able to access all textbook information for prospective classes before registration.
The Higher Education Act—a law that allows for the better use of federal educational resources for universities—was renewed in 2008. The new law, which will be put into effect July 1, called for universities that receive federal financial assistance to provide students with the ISBN and retail price of all required and recommended college textbooks.
This new law comes in the midst of a continuous debate at the University to get professors to post their syllabi before classes start. Last spring, the University Senate passed a resolution stating that professors must post their course syllabi on Courseworks two weeks before the start of classes. At the first meeting this semester, the Senate acknowledged that there has not been full compliance with this issue.
“One hundred percent of people will never comply, but I’ll think you’ll get a very good response rate,” Sharyn O’Halloran, the chair of the Senate’s executive committee, said about the syllabi policy.
Text book information will be accessible to students through CourseWorks and the price will be updated every two hours through a new software, Bowkers, that posts the suggested retail prices to the professor’s course site, according to Senior Vice Provost Stephen Rittenberg.
The site will show the publishers’ suggested retail price.
While students will theoretically be able to look up their books before registering for classes, this information may not always match up with the actual texts that will be used. Professors will be able to change their book selection during the semester without violating the law since it only requires that the information be updated to the best of their knowledge.
“Students should be aware that some faculty may not know by April 12 what texts they’ll be using in the fall. Our instructions are to update our listings as our plans change,” wrote Director of Undergraduate Programs and Professor Lois Putnam in an email.
Although professors will be required to post the textbooks for the class, they will not have to post the actual syllabus. But Rittenberg said he hoped the new system will inform students about the course as well as help them make purchasing decisions.
Rittenberg said he has received mixed feedback from professors about providing textbook information beforehand. “I have heard some faculty say that we do this already and it doesn’t require much of a change, but for some, it requires an adjustment,” he said.
Professors that do not require textbooks will likely be unaffected by the new law. “My courses do not have textbooks—so there is no change for me,” wrote economics professor Alessandra Casella in an email.
Putnam, who has used this new application, said it seemed “well-designed,” requiring only a few clicks and ISBN numbers to use.
Maneesha Aggarwal, manager of teaching and learning in Columbia University Information Technology, said that CUIT is currently working on tools to monitor professors’ uses of the website to be sure that students are getting updated information. This information will be accessible to the deans, who can then send out reminders.
The CourseWorks website will also display whether books will be required for the class, according to Aggarwal.
Some students said they were looking forward to taking advantage of the additional information.
“This semester, I ended up dropping one of my sociology classes because of the lack of information on books. The bookstore website showed no set of books, but when I showed up on the first day of class, there was seven required books. None of which were available at the bookstore,” Kevin Montiel, CC ’13, said.
Others said they would appreciate the opportunity to preview the course material before committing themselves to a class. “It would make my decision easier, and I would be able to choose classes not only based on the subject but also on the material I will be learning in the class from the textbook,” Prentis Robinson, CC ’11, said.
But some students said they don’t expect to use the new system. “I feel like it wouldn’t have any effect for me because if I really want to take the class, then it wouldn’t matter how much a book costs,” Jessica Fingers, CC ’13, said.
The textbook information may ultimately hold more weight to students for elective classes.
“If I’m interested in the class and the description, then it wouldn’t matter. But, maybe if it was an elective class and the book was $300, then I would check,” Mary Ghadimi, CC ’11, said.
Emily Kwong contributed reporting to this article.