Proposal: Textbook Comparison App as Economic Justice

For my final project, I have chosen to address social justice from an economic standpoint. In Ann Light and Rosemary Luckin’s “Designing for social justice: people, technology, learning” (2008), the authors discuss Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s view on social justice. Sen believes that “justice requires us to enable people to engage in the activities necessary to achieve what they want” (p. 9). In other words, social justice exists when all people have equal opportunity to the means to advance themselves in society in some way. Wealth distribution in the United States stands out to me as being relevant to Sen’s definition of social justice. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is increasing, and there are growing rumblings of a disappearing middle class. Higher education is marketed as one way to ensure that you can rise above the working class and sustain yourself. In order to secure any well-paying position, having a Bachelor’s degree is now practically a prerequisite. The cost of attending a college or university, though, is astronomical. Students are seemingly faced with no choice, stuck in this Catch-22: you need a degree to get a job yet need a job to pay for your degree. How, then, do average American students afford their education and all the extra costs associated with it?

The app I am interested in creating would hopefully assuage this burden at least a little bit by providing students with most (if not all) of their options when it comes to purchasing, renting, or borrowing the textbooks that are required for their courses. It would function as a comparison tool, allowing students to bargain shop for their required course materials. Recalling Sen’s definition of social justice, this app would enable students to engage in the activities necessary (in this case attending a university and gaining an education) to achieve their goal (a career and steady income) without being limited by their economic status. The prices of textbooks are often exorbitant, especially when compounded with the extremely high prices of tuition. Students are often unaware that other options exist for textbooks besides purchasing from the often-overpriced school bookstore.

My app would allow a student to type in the title, author, or ISBN of the book they need for their class. Then, the app would search the databases of popular online book retailers (Amazon, Chegg, and, among others) and compare the price of the book from each retailer. It would factor in shipping costs and, in Amazon’s case, provide results that ship direct from the company as well as those that ship from private sellers. Additionally, it would provide prices for in-person bookstores that have their inventory online, such as Barnes and Noble, if the student wished to purchase at a store. The most useful function of the app, though, would be its ability to search local library databases. Though city libraries often do not have textbooks, they do have trade books available that are used in many college courses. The app would also be able to search university libraries’ inventories if the student signed in with their college or university credentials. They would not only have access to the books from their own school’s library but to the books from any library that had an intra-library loan agreement with their school as well. The app would thus enable students, who are already paying the price of college tuition, to decrease their cost of attendance. Perhaps it could even encourage potential students who are debating whether or not to attend college because of its cost to enroll if they see that textbooks can be less of an expense than they think.

The idea for my app connects to my field research fairly closely. As an employee at a college bookstore, I see students discouraged by the cost of their books every day. I have seen the pained faces of countless science majors upon informing them that a book they absolutely need to pass their course is going to cost them upwards of $300. Multiply that by five if they’re taking five important classes for their major, and it adds up to a sum that is just unaffordable. Sometimes we don’t even have books in stock, as I experienced when I did my field research, and I am unable to help desperate customers because I do not have access to any other textbook databases besides our own. Some people even don’t realize they could check the library (and by extension, other universities’ libraries) and borrow their book at no cost to them. Hopefully my app could provide users with awareness of their options.

Ideas for design project:

  1. The main idea I have for my design project is to Photoshop a mockup of a few screenshots of what I would want the app to look like. These would include both the pricing screen and the library availability screen.
  2. The second idea I have for my design project (if my first idea falls through) would be poster that would visualize the same information, just in a non-digital format.

Timeline for completion:

In the next few weeks when I’m finally not inundated with assignments to complete, I will hopefully begin working on my Photoshop mockup of the app. This will also be the basis for the presentation part of my project. During this time I will also begin researching similar apps (if there are any) along with issues related to the rising cost of higher education. My meeting with Kristina DeVoe is on April 17th, so after I run my ideas and sources by her I will focus more on crafting the paper itself. If you couldn’t already tell by my Tweeting discussion questions and posting essays well in advance of their due dates, I like to get things done as soon as I can, so my paper definitely won’t be completed at the last minute!

Intended sources

  1. Firebaugh, G. (2013). Changing inequality. Contemporary Sociology, 42(2), 218-219. Retrieved from
  2. Light, A. and Luckin, R. (2008). Designing for social justice: people, technology, and learning. Opening Education. Retrieved from
  3. McDearmon, J. T. (2009). Tuition rising: Why college costs so much. International Journal of Educational Advancement, 9(1), 54-56. Retrieved from
  4. Sobel, A. E. K. (2013). The escalating cost of college. Computer, 46(12), 85-87. Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “Proposal: Textbook Comparison App as Economic Justice”

  1. This is off to a very good start. You have already clearly explicated the social justice component and your sources indicate you are well on your way to analyzing the details of your topic. There is probably research on the publishing industry that will be useful as well. Any stats you can find on how much students spend on textbooks will also be useful.

    As you are talking about linking it to local libraries, Ms. DeVoe will probably have some useful insights you can incorporate into the design. Also I don’t know if this is already something you are thinking of including but some publishers have textbook rental plans (those might only be for digital copies, you’d have to research that). Finally remember to address accessibility and privacy concerns.

    For the visual design component, I recommend doing at least one image of all of the major screens. What does it look like when users open it up? What does it look like when the search results first come back? Basically walk the audience through what using the app is like.

  2. I like the idea of having an app that deals with the growing cost of college textbook. I wrote an article about this a few semesters ago so I know there will be plenty of material to use. I love the idea of including the library along with virtual and physical stores. For anyone who has taken a mosaic class you know how many books you need for it. I saved a good amount of money by using the library for books and since most people never read these books again at the library you don’t get stuck with the book after the semester. I think another good idea would be to include online digital books such as PDF versions that are already online but free. For a couple of classes this semester we’ve used books that have been formatted to PDF so we didn’t have to purchase anything. If the app could somehow do a PDF or DOC search along with collecting the other data it might help those who can’t get a library card or who don’t have access to one. Textbook prices are outrageous even for classics that can be found at any library for free and students don’t use them enough. This app would be a great idea if it ever reached completion.

  3. I really like the idea of this app idea. I myself would definitely use it. I already told you in class but you are a great writer. You explained your app idea very clearly and it made me want to use it. I think this app could be successful especially with so many students struggling to buy expensive books.

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