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Online college texts are free, but not free from ads

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About these ads

The idea of having ads in textbooks has its share of critics, especially since it gives advertisers a prime vehicle to reach a student demographic with an estimated $182 billion in spending power, according to Harris Interactive.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit aimed at containing commercial influence, calls the move another form of "ad creep" that filters "into every nook and cranny of our lives and culture." Companies are jockeying to "cultivate brand loyalty among people with a lot of disposable cash and a future of buying to come," he says.

Mr. Ruskin sees the ads as undermining the message that educators hope to convey. "The purpose of education is to, among other things, teach critical reasoning. The purpose of advertising is to subvert critical reasoning to promote the sale of a product."

Professor Puri's decision to use a free textbook in his finance class was a "natural option," he says, since he already provides free lecture notes and slides on his website. The fact that the textbooks contained ads was of less concern, he says, "because the students are bombarded by ads everywhere." A stroll through the cafeteria, using e-mail, or watching TV attests to this fact, he adds. "People learn to filter out what they don't want to see."

In Nizami's case, he "filtered" out the ads in his free textbook by printing out the PDF version and discarding the pages with ads. He also did a side-by-side comparison with similar books at the campus bookstore to reassure himself that the free textbook was up to par. "I didn't see any need for [the ads], I was never going to buy anything [from the advertisers], I just needed the book."

Free books scrutinized

In order for publishers of such books to succeed, they must emphasize the content and quality of their textbooks, not price, says Joseph Turow, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication and the author of a forthcoming book, "Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age." "Professors are to some extent in the dark about the prices of the textbooks they order," he says.

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