Monday, June 10, 2013


I was pleased recently to find I could acquire a used copy of Krugman's Macroeconomics, 2nd Edition for $11. That is quite an improvement over the new price at Amazon of $163. I bought mine right near the end of the school year when there was only one available on line.  Had I had waited a week or two, I could have got the book at half my price. There is now a third edition, though it is only a couple years newer, and the new price is about the same as the second edition.

 Textbook prices in general seem obscene, as does the general cost of higher education these days. One possibility in regard to text prices might be to make professors pay for their student's texts out of their own salary. That would put some upward pressure on professor salaries I suppose, but it does seem likely it would cut down on the issuance of new editions with inconsequential revisions as well. Also, if the texts are genuinely well produced as is the case with the Krugman book, some consideration might be encouraged in regard to the role of professors in the teaching and learning process.

While I enjoyed the Coursera on line Microeconomics course I recently completed, I was also reminded in the process that lecturing leaves a lot to be desired as a teaching and learning tool.  If the topic is at all complex, the need to take notes inevitably interferes with comprehension, and even if you have a video recording of the lecture, reviewing the material is still a cumbersome process.  When it is known that the material will be used primarily through an on line presentation, there is really no good excuse for not making a full textual copy available which can be indexed and searched.

In fact, I think it makes good sense to start with a good, thorough text like the Krugman book and build the learning experience outward from that point.  Adding supplemental and updated material on line is a simple matter, and the main text itself could also be made available in electronic form.  Group intereractions can be conducted on line in both real-time with something like Skype, or through less time-constricted forums.  Some of this is being done now, but not in any comprehensive way, primarily because of copyright restrictions, but also because of simple institutional inertia.

I think there is the hope among many proponents of on line education initiatives that it will be possible to create a system that is somehow independent of the existing educational establishment.  Others, including the serious developers of on line content, seem to be aiming at creating a product that will be attractive to educational institutions as a way of cutting costs.  I skeptical about either possibility given the huge amount of resources currently tied up in the existing educational system and the lack of will and planning to undertake serious reforms.  For a good look at just how bad the situation is -- particularly in regard to student loan debt -- take a look at a recent NY Times column by economist, Joseph Stiglitz.

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