What Where They Thinking: University Students Sold $ 180 Art Textbook With URLs Instead of Pictures

Global Visual and Material Culture/Screen capture

The future of the book is a regular topic of discussion on TreeHugger, whether an e-book is greener than a p-book. Students at OCAD University in Toronto got the worst of both worlds; They had to fork over $180 for a book on the history of art from prehistory to 1800, with no images. An artless art book, with links to a website where students could look at them.

Only a surrealist could think this up. There are so many things wrong with this, be it the cost of the book, the waste of paper, the complete silliness of even bothering when art is such a visual medium. No wonder the students and their parents started petitions. What the University and the publishers didn't reckon with was Brent Ashley, a very computer literate parent of one of the students, who wrote about it on his blog, calling it "an unmitigated sham of a travesty of a mockery of a hand-drawn-facsmile of a textbook." He wants something for the money he spends on his kid's education.

What I want is value. With this plan, one gets a book that is useless on its own and restricted access to a website presumably for a limited time – certainly only three months of use and direct relevance..... Alternatively, I will be content with one or more hard-backed books, professionally bound, with illustrations consisting of full color plates. After my daughter has used them for school I can read them and learn from them when and wherever I like without electricity or network connection, lend them, use them to stop my table from wobbling, press flowers in them, and assign them to my descendants.

Which is as good an explanation of the value of a real book as I have seen in a while. OCAD University defended its position (for a while), claiming that "If we had opted for print clearance of all the Stokstad and Drucker images, the text would have cost over $800."

Perhaps, but I did a quick check on three of the paintings listed on pages shown and there were Wikipedia Creative Commons versions for two of them.

Art Book/Screen capture

OCAD is an acronym for Ontario College of Art and Design, what it was called before it was upgraded to University status. One wonders what a school of design has to say about a page like this.

Being the IT consultant that he is, Mr. Ashley let a few people know about this issue, like Techdirt, Gawker, BoingBoing and enough websites to bring the dismay of the Internet down on OCAD. Of course, they folded. Pearson will be buying back the books, and according to the Dean, in future editions " there will be no empty blocks of white space." Brent Ashley is pleased, telling the National Post that “This is a great example of how to respond to criticism. I think the steps they are recommending are good positive steps.”

OCAD University / Wikipedia/CC BY 2.0

I am pleased that there is a sort of happy ending; OCAD is a great school and doesn't need this kind of mess, I have been a guest lecturer there and have enjoyed the experience. But it still raises so many questions, some specific to this and some far more general:

Obviously an art book with no art, just references to online and a whole lot of blank space, is the worst of both worlds. But if a book is being produced for a specific course with such a short print run, does it make any sense to publish it at all on paper?

Students have been complaining for years about the high cost of textbooks. They are already in debt up to their eyeballs. Why do Universities and professors keep doing this to them?

Why, when every image in a book covering art from prehistory to 1800, bother licensing images when probably every one in the book can be linked to for free? If ever there was an opportunity for using the internet to teach, this is it.

Ryerson students/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We have to rethink the way we teach university and use textbooks in the internet age. I teach sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design, and even when the students show up to class they have their noses in their macbooks. To think that you have to print an expensive text so that a professor can stand up at the front and read from it is so 19th century.

Tags: Books | Toronto