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Monday, January 30, 2012

Textbooks Revisited

I just don't like textbooks. I used them in school, but when I finally called the shots for my first solo class, I didn't require my students to use the $60 tome. I used the text to help guide me as I was teaching something I'd never formally studied or taught (World Regional Geography). I made sure three copies were available in the school library. Instead, I asked my students to spend $15 on a softcover copy of Goode's World Atlas. I told them by the end of the course it should be dog-eared and have coffee stains. I also told them that they could use the atlas on every exam. That was 1991.

In 2007 I started teaching online in a master's program and the topics were so "cutting edge" no text would have made any sense. Instead, I cobbled together readings, videos, podcasts and student created content as resources. These would be the key "texts" for my students out in the workforce, so I decided, why not use them now? Moreover, GIS technology was changing so fast that even a Web-based resource might be out of date after one semester! I literally revamped the "reading list" each term I taught.

This is all background to explore Apple's recent education announcements (Engadget coverage). It had three parts:
  • the three largest publishers partnered with Apple to provide text books for iOS devices (only)
  • free tools for teachers to create their own textbooks (Mac only, in a closed format)
  • an update to iTunes University (again with a closed format)
I suspect readers have already identified my concern about the closedness of these solutions. My real question, however, is: Do we need text books anymore? I ask that trying to consider K-12 and higher ed across the curriculum, even though my experience is mostly with higher ed in the geography and GIS disciplines.

Why do student, teachers and parents like textbooks? I'll toss out these ideas:
  • set a standard for what is to be learned
  • include key resources like maps and tables in one place
  • include exercises (the best ones also include answers)
  • organize a topic into chapters
  • provide step by step instructions (GIS ones do that a lot)
  • include review questions/quizzes
  • provide an outline for teachers new to the topic
  • authoritative discussion of topic
  • no one ever got fired by used the state approved text book (safety net for instructors)
Why do those same people dislike them?
  • too heavy 
  • too expensive
  • dull text/boring
  • static and dated
  • can restrict teacher creativity
  • don't cover everything a teacher wants/needs to
These responses, I think, apply in many cases to both paper and electronic versions of textbooks, though costs for the latter are still being set. Apple's vision of $14.99 per text, per student, per topic, per year for K-12 may or may not mean a cost savings. The cost of the device (and its maintenance/connectivity) on which it must be run must also be considered, alongside professional development for the instructors who will use them.

A more important question, perhaps, is "How are textbooks used today?" I suspect they are used at least in part as they were used when I was in school: as homework reading collections, in class reading  collections, and collections of "problem sets." That set of uses aligns with, I'd argue, the "sage on the stage" vision of education. I'm hopeful we are moving to at least a smattering of the "guide on the side" approach. I wonder if the textbook makes sense for that approach.

The final concern I have about textbooks is that they, be they paper or electronic, put a topic in a box. They may have aligned websites or links to other multi-media, but they are by definition the "starting point" for teaching and learning. Does that make sense in today's world?

Learners have access to their cell phones (to call Dad and ask about the second law of physics), videos by top notch teachers (detailing how to multiply fractions and how to play Journey's "Don't Stop" on the piano) as well as complete online texts about geospatial data. Why should they start with a single textbook?

I think it's time the "guide on the side" stepped up to really be that guide. Why not have students seek out a way to learn what a (GIS) buffer is and how to create one in whatever software they are using? As much as we are teaching students content, in today's world, we must teach them how to learn. I think ditching the textbook might be a good first step in some situations.