7 Nov 2011

Is the textbook dead?

We all know the book is dead. Thank you iPad, Kindle et al...Well, the book appears to be dead except for all those stats that say it isn't. The ebook it seems has, ahem, re-kindled a passion for reading, so guess what: people are buying ebooks AND good old-fashioned "print" books. Video has not killed the radio star. Yet.

But what about textbooks? Our feelings about these mass-produced and mostly dull tomes are decidedly much less sentimental and affectionate. In fact, rather than defend the back-breaking beasts, most of us would be happy to slay them ourselves, and quickly. Most textbooks are out-dated, generic, barely relevant, and expensive.

It came as no surprise then to read online that a "group of three Minnesota math teachers got together over the summer to write their own textbooks", textbooks that hopefully reflect the school's curriculum more accurately and that supposedly saved the school district pots of money. The materials also conveniently now reside "on the web in the form of an easily updatable online textbook." Could this be the beginning of the end for the traditional textbook? Probably.  Am I overjoyed? Well, yes, and no.

Having spent the last six years creating current and relevant materials for students and teachers, I think it is obvious that I was disillusioned with the traditional textbook and its limitations. In my view, engaging learners is first and foremost and third and fourth editions of a 70's era textbook are not the stuff of inspiration or motivation. So I spiced things up a little, with real life and real time content, online and in print. Just like the Minnesota crew.  So what keeps nagging at me?

You see, the Minnesota project is, in essence, self-publishing, and this fast-growing industry is fraught with its own problems and limitations. The 3 R's are not in the same category as a zombie novel, the latter of which you could write and self-publish to your heart's content, with or without an editor, or a peer review, or even spell check for that matter.  Your readership, if disgruntled, although out a few dollars, would not otherwise be adversely affected. The same cannot be said for an eighth grader whose school-published  math book contains errors. Traditional textbooks are out-of-date partly because it takes time to thoroughly edit, fact-check, and cross-reference what has been written.

The other issue with self-published textbooks is that there is often no set standard, be it a linguistic register or a consistent template. Should materials be added or updated at later stages by someone else, the approach or language used could vary significantly.  How to handle this across disciplines?  On one hand, this could add diversity of perspective (the absence of which is another danger of single-authored/self-published texts). On the other, it could cause confusion.

The final little niggle for me is, oddly, the online component. Odd because I adore #edtech-everything. I tweet, implement, and research #edtech. I heart #edtech. That said, I sometimes feel that in our rush to embrace all things tech in education, we neglect to see that some of that old-fashioned stuff not only works just fine thank you but is still essential in our learners' learning experiences. There is a reason why print books are still selling, just as there is a reason we still have televisions. Different formats appeal to different people at different times. No matter how much tech I incorporate in my classroom, my students still want to write something down with an ol' ball point pen or circle something in their textbook or add notes in the margins. Perhaps one day, everything will indeed be done digitally and perhaps one day, the textbook will evolve itself out of existence. By all means, include a digital copy, but I'm fairly certain learners are not quite ready to say goodbye to hard copies all together.

None of these concerns take away from what is a brave new step in an innovative direction - current, specialized, specific, and relevant materials are the stuff of teachers' and learners' dreams and more reasonably priced textbooks the stuff of adminstrators' dreams.  Let's just dream with both eyes open.

Oh, and just for old time's sake, here's "Video Killed the Radio Star":

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