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. <>.))

    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 ( 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, (ols), and that domain,, 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.

Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.