It pays to learn from books, not photocopies

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 February, 2011, 12:00am

If we were to compare Hong Kong universities with their peer institutions abroad, what single difference would be most apparent? The lack of textbooks here.

Hong Kong universities seem to have opted for photocopies, 'course packs' and other do-it-yourself substitutes for bona fide textbooks in most of their classes. Visit any university bookstore in Hong Kong and you will be struck by the absence of textbooks for most courses. At one of the most prominent Hong Kong universities, fewer than 40 per cent of courses make use of textbooks of any kind. By contrast, university bookstores abroad have hundreds of stacks of textbooks arranged for purchase, given that their typical student will buy at least one textbook for each class during the term.

The advantages of textbooks are four-fold. First, textbooks have not only been written by a subject area expert but have also been vetted in the review and production process by many other specialists. This kind of due diligence makes sure that treatment of the topic at hand is thorough, current and balanced.

Second, textbooks have high production values in terms of well-designed, eye-catching (and mind-catching) graphics, charts, pictures and a host of other learning features, including online practice tests, videos, cases and enrichment reading co-ordinated with textbook chapters. Photocopied pages tend to be just print, print, print.

Third, textbooks almost always contain chapters that an instructor must skip for the sake of time during the semester. These unexplored aspects of a subject become fertile areas for independent study by students who want to push beyond the limits of the course syllabus.

Finally, textbooks become part of a student's growing professional library, no matter what his or her major course of study. Course packs and photocopies do not end up on the student's shelf as an aid to life-long learning (a professed goal of our university system). Based on my casual survey of rubbish bins at the end of semesters, I think I know where quick and cheap course materials end up. Sadly, the professional library of a Hong Kong undergraduate student may consist of only one book: a dictionary.

The issue, of course, may be cost. Students abroad spend at least HK$4,000 each semester on textbooks. In fields such as medicine, law, engineering or computer science, that figure may easily double. In a renowned educational system like Hong Kong's, where tuition is predominantly subsidised by grants and loans, the budget may not have made room for textbook purchases. Nor can students generally afford textbooks on their own.

If indeed money is the issue, we need to rethink our educational priorities. Stunning university buildings and facilities do not in themselves nurture the life of the mind. Students who read little, or who read an assortment of incomplete, disjointed photocopies, are missing out on the invaluable learning opportunity provided by worthwhile, substantial textbooks. Photocopied articles can profitably supplement textbooks, but should not take their place.

Art Bell, PhD, is a management professor in Hong Kong