The Region

The Net: The Coming Revolution in Teaching Economics

Publishers of economic textbooks look toward the Web

Kristeen Bullwinkle

Published December 1, 1998  | December 1998 issue

Today's textbooks are often criticized for their similarity, according to the accompanying article. But such criticisms don't often apply to Web publications. Indeed, the Internet provides publishers—including economics textbook publishers—an opportunity to distinguish themselves.

Textbook publishers, like those in other industries, are in various stages of using the Internet. Almost all publishers have Web sites to promote their texts by offering sample chapters, the table of contents and purchasing information. But the best sites provide much more than marketing.

Several sites provide teachers with additional resources that they have traditionally created on their own. Teachers who supplement the text with current examples from the news can now go to the publisher's site instead of to the news racks. Current economic data is made easily accessible at a few sites. The Internet allows teachers and students to follow economic policy as it's made, and some sites facilitate this with links and analysis. Teachers and students can also send and share messages with others via E-mail lists and online bulletin boards.

In addition, students can take practice quizzes and find plenty of links to sources for research papers. For example, The Region magazine and the Minneapolis Fed's Web site can be accessed from a number of publishers' sites: In one case a publisher lists the names of important economists and then provides links to The Region's gallery of interviews; in another case a textbook has Web assignments for each chapter, one of which links to The Region's interview with Janet Yellen and then poses questions relating to the interview.

Publishers, instructors and students are discovering how textbooks and web sites can be used together to support the learning of economics. Kurt Gerdenich, media technology editor, economics, at South-Western College Publishing says that "most economics textbooks are a combination of theory and application. Print is a wonderful medium for communicating theory; however, it is not well suited for presenting applications of this theory. Video and audio news reports, today's newspaper articles and electronic simulations, for a few examples, are all better 'applications' than a feature box or sidebar in a textbook." And the Internet makes all of that possible, according to Gerdenich. "The result is briefer, more focused textbooks and livelier, more timely applications—a better learning and teaching model in all respects," he says.

John Kane, creator of South-Western's online EconDebates and associate professor at Oswego State University of New York, agrees. "While all textbooks include contemporary policy examples of economic theory, these examples, while still relevant as teaching tools, often become out of date rather quickly." Textbooks might not be updated for up to five years in some cases, Kane says, and that's too long.

"Furthermore, the Web contains wonderful resources dealing with current economic conditions and policy issues that are updated on a daily, weekly or monthly basis," Kane says. "Students often have trouble seeing the connection between the theory they learn in the classroom and everyday life. The Web makes it possible to show the students how these theories have real-world applications. It allows students to see the current status of political debates that deal with fundamental issues."

In terms of traditional textbooks, the accompanying article suggests that any revolution in textbook publishing will show up in new content and organization. One of the advantages of the Web is that it allows seemingly infinite ways to organize content and to add opposing viewpoints and alternative content. However, most of the Web sites follow an organization similar to their textbooks. Links, news stories and current real-world examples are all provided to illustrate concepts introduced in the texts—chapter by chapter. More than one site provides additional information on Social Security, for example, but few introduce truly new content.

The possibility for more customization and more interactive student activities is not yet fully realized. Some sites have obviously planned for future development but have yet to implement it, as evidenced by empty boilerplate pages. Textbooks might be revised every three to five years, but Web sites and other Internet offerings need to be maintained and enriched continually—or at least throughout the school year.

Publishers, of course, will need to recoup these costs. A few sites have already protected portions of their sites with passwords that can be obtained only after the textbook has been purchased. Some sites restrict almost all of their online content, and some only restrict access to such items as test manuals, solutions or downloadable programs.

"The future will include the addition of more interactive tutorials and simulations that can be distributed cheaply and efficiently over the Web," Kane says. "The use of more online video will become more common as bandwidth and connection speeds continue to increase. In general, the quantity and quality of material available online will continue to improve."

Gerdenich believes that in the future content will be increasingly customized, delivery times will shorten and accessibility will improve. "Ultimately, pedagogical effectiveness will increase. The publisher becomes less of a commodity producer of content—one size fits all—and more of a content partner with individual institutions and teachers."

Houghton Mifflin has plans to offer customized course materials through an online content database, according to Bonnie Binkert, editor-in-chief of accounting, business and economics, and communication. Also, the textbook publisher will likely begin selling materials direct to students and other customers online, Binkert says.

Within a year, college publishers will put full books online, according to Merrily Mazza, vice president of editing, design and production, McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Payment and illegal copying continue to be important issues, though. "Control of copyrighted content is one of the biggest issues publishers face with Web delivery. Infrastructure (speed of transmission) is also an issue," Mazza says.

For links to economics textbook publishers, visit the Publishers of Economics Textbooks site.