Home > Uncategorized > The Death of the Textbook?

The Death of the Textbook?

I recently quipped in class that if you are a tech journalist with writer’s block, the best solution is to write “The death of …” then insert some random piece of technology (e-mail, games consoles, desktop computers, the internal combustion engine etc.). I’m sure that if you looked at articles of this type over the last ten years, you would find that nearly all the things in question are still doing fine. That is why I put a question mark at the end of this title, because I really have no good argument that textbooks are on the way out. However, I would like it if it were true, and my experiences in teaching English for Academic Purposes have been a major influence. I can see how textbooks can be useful at lower levels, but by the time you get to university, the usefulness of textbooks is questionable, and many textbooks are, quite frankly, bad. I have been teaching without using any textbook other than a short guide to writing a term paper that in any case I wrote myself because I was so fed up with the existing materials. I don’t even photocopy parts of other people’s textbooks. All my content texts are either freely available online  articles, articles from academic journals our university is subscribed to, or  sometimes chapters from books in the library. Students print them out or put them on a mobile device of their choice. No expensive textbooks, no annoying DRM, and no need for pirating either.

What prompted these thoughts was an article in Campus Technology called “The Price Is Right?” that questions why e-textbooks are still so expensive, often as much as 70% of the print price – and this for something students don’t actually own, but really just rent. You can’t resell an e-textbook at the end of the course, and often you can’t read it either. Unsurprisingly, students are less enthusiastic than had been predicted. More interestingly, many lecturers are not keen to jump on the e-text bandwagon because they are actively espousing the method that I had merely stumbled upon.

The OER [open education resources] approach certainly appeals to Long at Chattanooga State. For the last five or six years, she has used no textbooks in her American history courses, preferring to use materials freely available on the web. In fact, she was irked when she was required to use an e-textbook in her geography class as part of the CourseSmart pilot. Although she enhanced the course with her own notes, she would have preferred to teach it without a core text. “There is so much in geography already out there on the web, why would I need a book?” she asks. “And yet I’m required to have it.”

Thomas Aquinas said, “I fear the man who only has one book.” I’d say the same for a course.

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