Back to school – spend some money, make some money

It is time for back to school sales, services and advice to start flowing, and a few things have caught my eye recently.
There is always interest in saving money on textbooks, and the Lifehacker guide to saving money on textbooks isn’t a bad start, though the comments do rake them over the coals a bit for suggesting photocopying as a valid option. But you get the standard list of sources for new and used books and a wonderful reminder at the bottom to make sure that you are getting the correct book. If at all possible – remember to use the ISBN! Be careful of international versions of texts also – while the are often cheaper, you won’t get much value out of a computer security text that omits all of the content about encryption because it is not legal to export.
Electronic textbooks have been slowly gaining attention, and I’ve seen a number of links to articles about CourseSmart, a service providing electronic textbooks on your computer or iPad (the iPad being the bit getting the most attention). I was curious about their claim that the service “carries over 90% of all core textbooks used in Higher Education today”. Poking around the textbook listings for my department (if you’re a college student hopefully you’ve heard that textbook information should now be available with the course registration information for most courses you are taking), I found that only two of the eleven texts listed are available. This includes a book they sell for $92.70 that one could get new at Amazon for $132.12 or in “new” used condition for less than $20 including shipping. Whether this is worth your while will vary significantly based on the courses you are taking.
Furthermore, I’d be cautious making an electronic purchase before finding out a bit about your class. The electronic texts I looked at were listed to expire after 180 days, which is less than ideal for a text that might be used in several courses or useful as a reference later on. Almost all of my classes have open book exams, but that doesn’t mean it is “open iPad”. This can also become a problem with plans to share a book among multiple students – workable for homework and reading assignments but you’re not likely to be permitted to pass a book back and forth between you in the middle of an exam.
The weirdest thing I found was the site Ultrinsic that lets you bet on the grades you will get in your classes. You set up an account, set targets – for class grades or your semester GPA – and then specify a reward that you will get if you reach that target. It seems that the higher you place the target, the less that you have to chip in up front and the more that the site will pay out if you get that grade. I did not go through the registration process but it looks like they ask for your academic history, so their payout may also vary based on how much of a stretch those grades are for you. Scary feature – you can either have an official transcript mailed to them or, if you prefer, you can just give them your username and password to log into your school’s online system so they can check your grades. DO NOT DO THIS!

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