Sunday, June 14, 2009

Textbook Economics

This post is not about Economics textbooks. I've dealt with enough of those in my life that I feel no need to revisit the topic. Instead, I'd like to engage some criticisms Seth Godin has made of the current crop of marketing textbooks. I share his concerns, and I'll add that the textbook situation is only slightly better in other business sub-fields. Luckily, the problem is easy to fix.

But first, let's get the negativity out of the way: The manner in which business departments select, assign and use textbooks is awful. As Seth points out, they are overpriced, impractical, boring, and forgettable. I definitely extracted quite a bit of value from my biz-school undergrad, but at a guess, roughly 80% of my current understanding of marketing has come from writer's like Godin, Cialdini, Tim Ferriss, Ben Casnocha and Tucker Max. Considering I've spent about 10x as many hours with textbooks than I have with all of the above combined, this is a major failure by my undergraduate program to deliver its core product.

The problem with the textbook industry is one of incentives. Professors write them to supplement their income. As writers of both textbooks and syllabi, they are in a conflict of interest - royalties can be increased by releasing unnecessarily frequent new editions, avoiding teaching methods that do not require a text, and so on. The fraction of professors teaching courses using their own textbooks is not large, but there are not many business gurus teaching and writing textbooks at top-tier schools in the world today. A lot of them know each other, and if one can do a favour for the other - well hey, they are business professors after all.

Another problem is the increasingly common practice of textbooks that include supplementary teaching material, such as lecture slides, online quizzes, etc. that make the Professor's job easier. Sometimes this can be perfectly reasonable. Other times - like the 4th year Marketing and OB courses in which the midterm and final exam consisted entirely of pre-written multiple choice questions, all 100% gradeable by Scantron machines - not so much.

Finally there is just the overall low quality of the actual content of the textbooks. One that Godin looked at (Printed in 2009) didn't have an entry in the index for either of Google or Twitter. Yeesh.

So what we have now is suboptimal. How do we fix it?

My proposed solution has two parts:

1) An Open-Source Glossary

For each field and sub field, and sub-sub-field of business (or anything, really) create an open-source Wiki that can be edited by any peer-approved professor in the field. Wiki-Glossary will function as a collection of impartial definitions of terms, theories, people and ideas in the realm of marketing. Basically, it will be Wikipedia, with editing privileges limited to non-anonymous experts in the field. Truthfully, I think Wikipedia already fills this need. But many people are still not 100% comfortable trusting anyone without official credentials, so an elitist Wiki such as this will be an easier sell.

2) Crowd-sourcing Case studies

The best way to learn business is by reading and analyzing case studies. This is recognized by the top-tier management schools in the world, and it suggests an important role for textbooks to fill: a convenient filter and aggregator of case studies.

The best business courses that I took had "textbooks" that followed exactly this approach. You could certainly do a lot worse, as a professor, than to assign your students a set of case studies that they can purchase bound for $30 and go through each in turn. But you could also do better.

Imagine a database of every case study ever used in marketing and strategic management classes, updated and maintained by business school professors. Each professor can rate the case studies according to his or her tastes. Students as well.

Separately, lesson plans for each case study can be submitted by professors, which would also be rated up or down according to the tastes of their peers (or students). These lesson plans would be submitted anonymously to prevent groupthink and deference to established titans. No professor would be obligated to construct a syllabus consisting of only the "best" lesson plans for the "best" case studies, but it would be immediately easy to separate the obviously at-least-decent from the crap.

So there you have it. Professors would save time, students would get a better education, and I would receive enough blog traffic that I could retire on the proceeds of my "Check your credit rating" pop-up ads. Win-Win-Win.