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Six Reasons Why Textbooks Should Stop Being Textbooks


Earlier this week, I wrote about a guest-authored Mashable blog post, 6 Reasons Tablets Are Ready for the Classroom. The author, a representative of McGraw-Hill, seemed to be saying (and these are my words) that perhaps the textbook industry is ready to go tablet (digital) — the fact of which I am not so sure. In my post, I critiqued the six reasons and I also engaged a bit in comments discussion at Mashable — and I took a bit of heat for suggesting that the textbook industry may actually be a useful part of the formula for textbook 2.0. But let me accentuate the “may” part of that statement.

Yesterday, Mashable author, Sarah Kessler, wrote “The Case for Making Online Textbooks Open Source,” where she drew attention to programs at MIT and Carnegie Mellon that post lectures and other course materials online for free. She also shared an infographic (not linked) that compares the cost of traditional textbooks to open source course materials. (More about the Infographic, and its authors below — and don’t miss that part).

Kessler also described two barriers to the success of open source textbooks. She wrote that

..textbook authors must agree to have them distributed online without charging royalties — something that may work well in the software world, where engineers often work on projects while keeping a day job, but typically avoided by writers who put their sweat equity into one book at a time.

The question this raises in my mind is, “How many authors actually make a living as authors, doing it as a full-time job?” I suspect that the number is quite low, compared to the totality of books continuing to be published today. Most, like myself, write in order to subsidize our incomes and/or enhance our day jobs. It’s something that we do on the side, like a number of my college professors who wrote their own textbooks and had them stocked in the college bookstore for us to buy.

Kessler continued that

..books for K-12 classrooms must meet state standards, and most states don’t have procedures in place for approving open source textbooks.

OK, Why? Why do states have to approve textbooks? I know that part of it is to assure quality with regard to the state’ educational objectives. But I thought that at least in part, it was about the ability to buy in bulk and negotiate discounts? Am I wrong?

If i am not wrong, and the word “free” is inserted into the formula, does the need for bulk purchasing go away. And if quality is the issue, why do you need to create a system for evaluating instructional materials at the state level, when a system is already in place — teachers. Why can’t we trust teachers to select the instructional materials they need for their learners in their classrooms?

Here are six reasons why we don’t need textbooks.

  1. We have the Technology (still shamefully inequitable)
    …and I’m not just talking about iPads. Many teachers tell me that they have completely dropped their textbooks, replacing them with their ever evolving and growing Moodle or Blackboard sites. This makes a lot of sense to me — textbook as platform to be populated by the very teachers who will use them. Does such a platform already exist? Please comment.
  2. We have the Content
    What textbooks do is to take knowledge, that’s written someplace else, and present it in a way that satisfies the needs of the consumer. Can’t teachers respectfully and with regard for the law select, shape, mash and mix existing digital content into modules or learning objects for their learners. Might we even see commercial modules, produced by what use to be the textbook industry, that can be selected and purchased, for a nominal fee, from an app store style of content market place.
  3. We have the Expertise
    …in every town and every school and classroom. Out of a hundred high school teachers in the U.S.,
    • only two has less than a bachelor’s degree.
    • 52 of them have at least a master’s degree.
    • 53 of them have taught for at least 10 years and
    • 24 of them have taught for more than 20 years. ((United States. Percentage of public school teachers of grades 9 through 12, by field of main teaching assignment and selected demographic and educational characteristics: 2007-08. Washington: , 2009. Web. 20 May 2011. <http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d09/tables/dt09_070.asp>.))

    That is an enormous reservoir of knowledge and experience.

  4. We have the Environment for Community
    No one needs to do it alone. It’s not open source because it’s free. It’s open source because it’s free to be improved — by a community. Many programmers have contributed to the development of Firefox, and many more have developed extensions that add new functionality. Following the same model, communities of teachers can contributed well researched and carefully designed modules for portions of their curriculum (or standards if you insist) that they know well and about which they are especially passionate. Then they can collect models from other teachers and assemble them into the platform, constantly re-evaluating the materials, editing them, adding new ones in, deleting old and less effective ones out.
  5. Learners should be a Part of the Process
    How many of us assemble our own library of digital resources (bookmarks) and make the curation of that library a part of our working process? How many of us do it well? Might content curation become a 21st century skill that learners should be developing as part of their formal education? Should students be guided in growing their own digital textbooks into personal digital libraries?
  6. And It’s about Basics
    — reading, writing, and arithmetic. But I’m thinking of an expanded version that reflects an increasingly networked, digital, and info-abundant world. Do textbooks, from the bookstore reflect today’s prevailing information environment? No! But do digital textbooks, that are stamped “Approved” by some government agency, reflect an increasingly dynamic information environment and rapidly changing world any better? I think not! Teachers should be collecting, evaluating, editing and assembling their own textbooks, because it requires them to practice and talk about the contemporary literacy skills of a digital and networked information landscape — in front of their learners.

And finally, that last one, number six, brings us back to the Infographic. Here’s the url (http://goo.gl/2ICIE) to the graphic. I’m not linking to it and you shouldn’t either. The graphic compares the cost of various configurations of textbooks and the savings of going open source. But as I examined the graphic, I began to get that irritating twitch that happens when what I’m reading seems to be trying to convince me of something rather than inform me. The numbers were rather precise, but there were no sources given. At the bottom was the statement, “All data based on current averages” and a list of web sites, none of which seem to include the data displayed on the graphic. Doing some URL disconstruction, I got out to the hosting web site, Onlineschools.org (ols), and that domain, onlineschools.org, seemed familiar.

Doing more digging, I found a comment, in the original Mashable blog post by Canadian teacher David Wees linking to this blog post by California educator Dan Meyer’s. In the blog post, Meyers uncovers how ols uses infographics like this and lists of the “100 top teacher blogs” or “100 top Administrator Blogs” to get bloggers like me to link to them, getting ols to the top of Google searches performed by people who are looking to get degrees without classrooms. This way, ols gets to becomes a link in the cash cow that online education appears to have become, and sometimes with the help of fraudulent practices. So don’t link to ols, and do link to Dan Meyers.

If you have other resources or ideas regarding the evolution of the textbook, please comment.


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  • http://transparentlearning.blogspot.com/ Bethany Smith

    I still have fond memories of one of my history teachers in high school that told us to never bring our textbook to class. That it would be a reference book for us, but that everything we would need in class would be a course pack of articles, book excerpts, etc. I never had a teacher before that didn’t just have us slog through a 300 page text book and it was liberating. Although I hated history until that point, it became my favorite class.

    One of the things that I find interesting is that I work in a college of education and our students have access to all the state approved textbooks, but none of my faculty really teach with them. They use articles, the internet, and other points of reference for their subject area but not the standard course of study textbook. I always wondered why our students would then go to a school and then be so motivated to just fall into the cycle of textbook teaching. Is it a crutch? A push from other teachers? A back-up plan? Or all of the above?

  • http://davidwees.com David Wees

    Hi David,

    Thanks for sharing Dan Meyer’s important blog post. I share it myself about once a week, to people who keep helping prop up the shameful tactics of some of the online “schools.”

    I have some other thoughts about the textbook as well, but your thoughts about the experience in the school system definitely stick with me. What a waste of human capital!

    Here are my thoughts on the format of the textbook. http://davidwees.com/content/forget-future-heres-textbook-i-want-now

  • http://microeducation.org Chris Makler

    David -

    Thanks for your very thorough and though-provoking post! I’ve recently left a major publisher, where I worked in their digital division.

    First let me say that the economics of publishing, from a cost (not price!) perspective, have very little to do with the output format (digital or print). When you’re printing things at scale, the cost of producing a textbook is very small; indeed, the effort that goes into enhancing digital offerings (high production values for video, etc.) is nearly as costly if not more so. The vast majority of the costs associated with producing a textbook are the editing and quality control measures that go into ensuring the quality of the content. The New York Times had an excellent piece comparing the cost structure of e-books to printed books a while back.

    The real shift isn’t going to be how textbooks themselves change – it’s going to be a shift from a world in which educational materials look like big textbooks to one in which those materials look more like Wikipedia articles. I’ve started a blog at http://microeducation.org to explore these issues, and I’d welcome your thoughts on my posts there.

    This is just the beginning of a majorly disruptive time in education. The good news is there are a lot of thoughtful people (Dan Meyer being one of the best, nice shout out to him!) who are going to help education be transformed for the better over the next decade. Keep up the great thoughts – this was worth at least 3 cents. :)

  • joseph

    I am not sure everything should be open source.

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  • http://www.DulcineaMedia.com Mark Moran

    David, Dulcinea Media offers findingEducation, an alpha version of a platform that, with widespread teacher adoption and a modest additional investment by us, would replace textbooks. All educators need to do is embrace it. We would be happy to see teachers use it as their “back-end” and then publish their assignment pages in a frame on their own website. More in this blog post from August 2010:


  • http://www.milestonedocuments.com/about/ditch-the-textbook/ Neil Schlager

    David, thanks for this interesting post. I think it should be noted that it’s not an “either-or” proposition. In the future, depending on the type of course, subject area, and other factors, educators may use a traditional textbook that costs money (either print or electronic version); a free, open-source textbook; no textbook; or a Web-based solution (free or paid) that includes content from educators themselves. Or, educators may combine these approaches. Our online history textbook alternative, Milestone Documents, does require that students pay ($50 per semester), but it can replace both a textbook and a document reader (and thus is still a cost savings for students). Some educators use our product in place of a textbook, while others our product alongside a textbook. As Bethany notes above, history is a subject area that lends itself to a “no textbook” solution. Other subjects may lend themselves to a different approach. Ultimately, educators should have far more options when it comes to teaching materials than they have had in the past.

  • moriartytth

    David- We have been moving to kill the traditional textbook for some time now. There are just several problems.
    #1. Not all students have access to digital devices at all times. I teach in a computer lab for all but one of my classes. What I can do in the computer lab is very different from what I can do in the traditional classroom. As long as there are equity issues with regards to the devices that our students have access to, there will be no textbook killing.
    #2. Time. Most of the teachers I know would have very little problem moving content to a digital platform. But, when does this take place? Our schedules are already so full that there is very little room left on the plate.
    #3. Ability. Yes, there are lots of content experts out there in the teaching world but there are very few teachers with the kinds of skills that it would take to truly make a digital textbook.
    Thanks for the post and for continuing to persevere.

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  • http://digitizeme.ca Wendy Melnick

    I am an English/Media Arts secondary teacher. I love the idea of collaborating on a textbook, much like they do for wikipedia. This allows for the “constant re-evaluating the materials, editing them, adding new ones in, deleting old and less effective ones out” I agree that teachers are the experts when it comes to textbook content. In fact, most teachers use a variety of sources for information. I think that we are past the drudgery of teaching from the text. Having said that I was dismayed with the content of an online course I am teaching – it is like an online textbook, only without any of the pizazz that “The Choice” offers from Al Gore. I guess we have a long way to go yet!

  • Joseph Reinhart

    As a graduate student analyzing this blog entry as an assignment I must reply with my current experience regarding this topic. After years of spending on average 100$ per book for my college classes, this year I purchased an E-reader that allows me to pay a fraction of the cost of the retail value of a hard copy. Not only did this provide me with a significant reduction in cost it also allowed me to instantly access my textbook from things such as my cell phone, laptop, desktop, and tablet. Even further, as long as I had access to any of these regardless of if I owned the equipment or not I could still access these electronic books. I am able to do this through the idea of “Cloud Computing.” Cloud Computing is roughly defined as any documents, either purchased or created, can be securely saved on a remote drive and securely accessed from specific systems.

    This idea significantly cuts down on classroom costs. Including lost textbooks, destroyed textbooks, upgrading to new editions, excuses regarding not having access, budget limits, etc… I believe that this idea of cloud computing will merge well with our school system and can only benefit our future students education.

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  • http://mslaidler.wordpress.com/ Autumn Laidler

    First, let me say, i couldn’t agree more, second let me say teachers who are on blogs, twitter, etc will definitely support, and be ready to implement I think the roadblock is the teacher who is comfortable with the textbook. Also, when we think about teacher training/student teachers this component needs to be considered, how are we preparing our future teachers at the university level for this type of instruction? Teachers who are not comfortable with tech but have an abundance of skills need a bridge here.

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