In the first class of the 2005-2006 school year, after calling roll and introducing myself and co-professor Terry Bensel, I told our students they were participating in an experiment. An experiment that, as far as we knew, no one else had undertaken. They were taking an Introduction to Environmental Science course with no textbook.

Saved by the screen.

Photo: iStockphoto.

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Here at Allegheny College — a liberal-arts, undergraduate institution in northwestern Pennsylvania with 2,000 students — approximately 180 students are distributed among four sections of this annual course. For the 19 years I’ve been teaching the class, they’ve been required to select one of the myriad textbooks that flood what must be a very lucrative market. But this year, in place of a 3.92-pound textbook (I weighed my complimentary copy of Miller’s Living in the Environment), the class readings consisted entirely of websites collated on our online syllabus.

Initially, Terry and I were motivated by the prospect of supplying students with real voices on environmental issues in real time, and reaping the altruistic pleasure of saving the students a hundred bucks. We hoped, too, to counteract the disease that is carried by only two known vectors, Tsetse flies and textbooks: sleeping sickness. While it is hard to be certain whether fewer students fell face-first into their keyboards than would have collapsed on a textbook, surveys we collected at the end of the first semester suggested they preferred the online version of learning.

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Site Unseen

Many students born in the late 1980s are more comfortable doing their homework reading from a screen, with their iPods blaring, IM screens blinking, and Facebook accounts open in another window. That’s a change us old guys, accustomed to the feel of paper and the sound of, well, nothing, had to come to terms with. But once we did, we discovered a gold mine.

Because environmental science is more current, than, say calculus, it naturally lends itself to online readings. When we were teaching population growth, for example, and wanted students to understand the impact of demographic momentum, we sent them to the U.S. Census Bureau. There, students could select from scores of countries and observe dynamic changes in population pyramids over the next 50 years, as many times as they were willing to click on a new country.

During our unit on air quality, we directed students to the U.S. EPA’s AIRNow website. It provides daily maps of ozone and particulate matter, as well as video loops that show pollution accumulating over the course of a day, and has map archives back to 2002, so students could hunt for the summer days when their hometowns had turned toxic.

The National Park Service supplies real-time air-quality data and webcams for 16 national parks. On bad air days, smog from L.A. can be seen overtaking the Grand Canyon. Only a textbook used by Harry Potter could make pictures do as much as this website does.

Of course, we didn’t just turn students loose on the web, since we feared that after a quick scan and a succession of clicks, too many would be looking at sites that had nothing to do with our assigned topic. For every web reading, we provided a set of directives specifying what content students should focus on. We also stoked our students with additional online information. Our syllabus has links to the PowerPoints we used in class and to assignments. As environmental news appears in The New York Times or Washington Post, we email those articles to the class. The syllabus even has Muckraker and Daily Grist at the top — which means, I suppose, our students will read this article about themselves on Grist.

For years, our assignments had been filled with directions to pages scattered through a textbook like weeds in a field of hybrid corn. Or we’d ask students to consume whole chapters, only a portion of which was pertinent. Textbook writers, trying to be all things to all students, tend toward the encyclopedic. For our students, it was all those additional pages written in desolate style that brought on the first signs of trypanosomiasis.

School’s Out for Summer

So did it work? Well, 41 of 46 students in our first-semester class self-reported doing the same or more reading than they would have in a textbook. This wasn’t necessarily due to a sudden interest in the topic; Andrew Mihalcin, a first-semester freshman, said, “I read more because I would be messing around on my computer and get bored, so I would look at the class website and do some of the readings.” That’s better than nothing.

Of those who admitted to reading less, three said there was less reading to do, because there was less filler than in textbooks. To be totally truthful, however, a lot of students didn’t think there was much difference. Tegan Millspaw, for example, walked into my office one day to discuss a class topic and without solicitation blurted out, “I just wanted you to know I hate the online readings. I don’t always have access to a computer, and the fact is I really don’t like reading from a screen.” (She did add that she doesn’t like reading textbooks, either.)

At times it felt like a hollow victory to think one group of students saw online readings as the lesser of two evils, and another clicked on our carefully selected websites only after Facebook turned out to be even more boring. But from my perspective, it was still a successful experiment.

The hard part, the potential barrier for other professors, is that it takes a lot of time and effort to put together readings this way. A careful observer will notice that there are a lot fewer readings at the end of our current syllabus, when Terry and I started running out of time and energy, than in the first several weeks of the semester. Moreover, while the major publishers are remunerating their authors to create new editions, a professor reliant on the web could find himself scrambling to replace URLs that have suddenly vanished.

The good news for me is that my entire department has bought into the concept, so we have distributed the work among us, with faculty members adding websites that suit their particular specialties. We’re building a bank of readings and PowerPoints that each of us can dip into to create a course that suits our needs. It will probably be close to three years before my department has deposited enough material into our collective bank that everyone feels confident enough to kick the textbook habit.

While others might repeat this experiment, there’s way too much money to be made selling textbooks for it to catch on. In fact, most publishers now make related websites accessible to purchasers of their product — in essence outsourcing the work my colleagues and I have done. Still, I’ll continue the text-free battle, if for no other reason than this: our survey revealed that a majority of students recognized a link between the content of the class and our method of delivery. “I didn’t print any of the readings, because I didn’t want to waste the paper and ink,” said Justine Law.

According to a report prepared this spring by the National Wildlife Federation and the Green Press Initiative, Green Textbook Initiative: Campus Toolkit [PDF], the U.S. paper industry uses a million tons of paper a year. Textbooks represent approximately 20 percent of that, consuming the equivalent of 4 million trees annually.

The Green Textbook Initiative is organizing consumers to demand textbooks printed on recycled paper. But like most of the environmental problems we talk about in class, there’s often a better alternative. In our case, we dispensed with the textbook altogether. That might just be the answer.