How textbooks are becoming cool

A Picture of a eBook
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A few years ago, when all this technology was still emerging, I wrote a short piece advocating a major revolution in the textbook industry: I called for the educational publishing industry to replace print texts with e-textbooks.  That piece became part of a chapter in a book on compassionate teaching that I’m writing, but it seems now I’m going to have to revise that chapter, because e-textbooks are, at long last, here.

This is the piece I wrote those few years back, unrevised:

As I understand it, the two primary causes of high textbook costs are the limited audience (and therefore greater per-copy cost of printing the books) and the rapid rate at which new editions emerge.  I think many textbook authors abuse the latter part of this system in order to profit from it, releasing minor changes to chapter reviews or slightly modified examples and illustrations and calling these “new” editions, which students must in turn pay for (I know of at least one author who confessed her only changes between editions were cosmetic, including cover design).  However, in general I believe the system of updating textbooks should work in favor of our students, because it allows us to provide students with the most recent information and theories available in a textbook format, so I continue to support responsibly updating the editions of our books.

The revolution I propose is to adopt new technology like Amazon’s Kindle electronic reader or the Sony reader, or downloadable electronic texts from an e-library, and then cease print publication altogether.

I do not advocate abandoning the printed page.  I am one of those stolid traditionalists who insists that part of the experience of reading necessarily involves the tactile and olfactory sensations connected with the paper and printers ink.  But in the case of a textbook industry built on continuous updating, I think e-texts and portable readers are the best solution for our students.  Digital readers in particular appeal to me as a medium for textbooks because they provide students with the portability of traditional textbooks but the compactness of the digital technology; a student could hold all their semester’s textbooks in a single reader and have access to their entire collection all the time.  Better still, they could cease the tragic but currently necessary habit of selling back textbooks, and could therefore keep all their college texts throughout their educational career and beyond, giving students a personal and portable library of reference texts as well as a literal continuum of the knowledge their acquire in college.  Moreover, students can interact with these digital texts with a greater freedom than traditional books, using the note-taking and highlighting features available on many readers without fear of damaging a book (or its resale value).

In this way, students can have a more direct interaction with their texts, and because their notes and their texts can be available on the same reading device, we teachers can reinforce the interdisciplinary reality that all coursework relates to all other coursework.  And, most importantly, because these books will be “printed” and distributed digitally, the cost of producing the texts will be drastically reduced and the textbooks will in turn be cheaper for students to purchase.

According to James Proctor, whose blog post “The Future of Textbooks in a Digitized World” tipped me off to the emerging e-textbook technology, all these things are coming true, and it’s about time.  Go check out Proctor’s blog post for more details, including some excellent points about the problems facing e-readers and blind students as well as some fascinating discussion in the comments over the legal ramifications of these changes.

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2 thoughts on “How textbooks are becoming cool

  1. Excellent ideas! I teach Engish, a subject that doesn’t need a new textbook that often. I prefer to use an old book and then supplement it with technology. I’m old: I like the old English textbooks that didn’t have highlilghted passages and more editor comments that author words!

    1. Thanks for the comment, fellow English teacher!

      I’ve always been a bit on the fence about marginalia in textbooks. For literature texts, I’m very much like you and prefer not to have someone else’s impressions impede on my reading, and I have NEVER written in or highlighted essay texts, literature texts and anthologies. But for those fields I was less confident in–the sciences, for instance–I always found other people’s notes helpful, and I’ve never had a problem with my own students highlighting or writing in their textbooks, even though I teach English–in fact, I often encourage it. And I’ve always found reading journals supremely useful. This new technology, I hope, can combine the best of all these learning styles and help students get the most out of they education however they might choose to interact with the text.

      In the post I linked to, one of the commenters noted that some students best learn through the tactile experience of turning pages in a printed textbook. It’s mostly psychological, but I too love the feel of a book in my hand and would need some time to adjust to the e-reader. But another commenter in that other post noted that newer generations of students who have grown up with this sort of technology have a less romanticized view of books and will be able to better adapt to e-readers for learning. And unlike many Luddite doom-sayers, I don’t expect the printed book to disappear entirely, ever, certainly not for pleasure reading, which means that while students might not have print texts for all their classes, they’ll still at least have access to some print books. So I foresee far more benefits than problems.

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