Beyond the Textbook

Probably none of us have gone through high school or college without some relationship to that 20th century artifact of learning called the textbook. Today's students are not experiencing the same thing.
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Probably none of us have gone through high school or college without some relationship to that 20th century artifact of learning called the textbook. While I remember in high school not being allowed to write in my textbook, I also remember being delighted in college when I realized that because I bought my own textbooks I could scribble notes in them and highlight with abandon. For those of us who liked to read, purchasing (mostly used) textbooks each semester was exciting because they were chock full of the promise of things we were about to learn. My nostalgia about textbooks of yore, however, directly contradicts my firm belief that textbooks are being superseded by far better forms of learning.

Today's students are not experiencing the same thing. Textbook prices have skyrocketed since the 1980s. And in the 1990s, the problem was exacerbated by publishers who tried to squelch the used textbook market by putting out new editions of books every 18 months instead of once every six years, as had been the tradition since the 1950s. Even more frustrating for students has been that as prices continued to increase, faculty would still require students to purchase an expensive textbook but then only use a third of the chapters. Because they were only required to read selections from a book, some students stopped buying textbooks altogether, hoping to either squeak by without reading the book, or hoping that one of the copies on reserve at their college library would be available the night before the exam. High school textbooks were not much better, except that the cost was absorbed by school districts, or rather, our taxpayer dollars.

These days the technology exists to create open textbooks at a fraction of the cost and offers content for free, assuming the student has Internet access. The textbook publishing industry has been challenged as new open textbook publishers hired authors (often educators) to create textbooks with content that was openly licensed and free. It is not insignificant that a textbook in almost every field of study is now accessible online and free of cost. Organizations such as CK12, for example, create open source textbooks to lower the cost of education in the U.S. and beyond. So far, the efforts have been widely accepted by school districts because they reduce costs for the school and allow teachers the opportunity to modify the textbooks and publish them through CK12's platform.

Ironically, because teachers today can create and distribute their own textbooks, they also have the power to destroy the very notion of the textbook. Using the Internet, educators can easily co-create and share learning content. They can alter lessons on the fly. They can cut and paste and customize content for each student. They can, in other words, eliminate the textbook altogether.

Creating content -- as the act of reading once spread rapidly centuries ago -- has become a possibility for all. The Internet has disrupted many of our traditional institutions, from newspaper publishers to recording companies, and now textbook publishers. A great wave of disintermediation has done away with the notion of publisher's profits and author's royalties. Online, teachers can collaborate and create learning content that can be remixed to suit a student's particular needs. They might not take sole proprietary authorship, yet experts in a particular subject can participate fully in the creative process. The top-down textbook hierarchy is inverted if not subverted. Content no longer needs to be delivered to teachers, as teachers can be part of the localization and adaptive process.

Perhaps not surprising is that those who create or want to use open content are often asked to show proof that it works. You have to ask though, how many times has someone "tested" the learning outcomes correlated with the use of conventional textbooks. Yet we have seen that teachers who create their own materials are more engaged with their students. Needless to say, they are also more engaged with their peers. Their content and their professionalism are enhanced and heightened. In addition, students benefit from the greater enthusiasm and understanding their teachers bring to each lesson.

The narrow focus on the open textbook is distracting us from what is potentially most important in education: the conversations about new approaches to learning that are taking place in all corners of the world, thanks to the Internet and greater access to digital resources. Once it is shown that textbooks may not be the most effective way to learn, there will be no going back. The question will no longer be open textbooks versus limited access textbooks, but instead about the ways in which education content can be created, shared, and distributed by those directly engaged in the teaching and learning process itself.

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