Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Educationally sound?

Legislation passed by the Pennsylvania Senate last week contains similar provisions, but it also features another requirement -- one that is disturbing faculty leaders nationally. The bill requires faculty members at the state's community colleges and universities to select "the least expensive, educationally sound textbooks."

While the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has yet to take up the bill, faculty groups are concerned about it because it would dictate specific choices to professors on which books to select. And while many professors say that they try to avoid expensive textbooks and to select reasonably priced works, many say that they regularly select books that are slightly more expensive than other "educationally sound" options, but that are better.
Inside Higher Ed.

Does this mean everything or nothing? The vast majority of texts are "educationally sound" in the sense that a decent professor could build a reasonable course around any of them: not that many university econ texts are error-ridden. But only a small number of texts would be "educationally sound" in meeting the needs of the particular course the prof wants to build.

If it's optimization subject to the constraint of the kind of course the prof wants to build, then the regulation is largely meaningless: only the text chosen by the prof winds up being educationally sound for that purpose. If instead course design is optimization subject to the constraint of the cheapest book being chosen, we'd wind up with a whole lot of somewhat shoddy courses being run.

We here use baby Varian for our intermediate calc-based micro because it's the best book for the kind of intermediate calc-based micro course we here want to run. Decent calc-based micro courses could be built around other books - they just wouldn't be as good as the one we've built around this text.

I'll bet that if the Senate's language winds up in the bill, it winds up being interpreted in the meaningless form rather than in the meaningful form. If some state panel decides which texts are educationally sound, there'd be revolution; if the prof decides, then the only sound book for the end sought by the prof will be the one he's already using.

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