University of Vermont

University Communications

The Textbook is Dead. Long Live the Textbook.

Release Date: 06-07-2006

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

In 1970, let’s say, you were a freshman in college. You wrote your papers on a typewriter after consulting journals in the library, you completed your calculus homework with a slide rule, you called your mother from the payphone in the hall, and your biology textbook was a 5-pound, 1000-page encyclopedia.

In 2006, your daughter is a first-year student in college. She writes her papers on a laptop computer after consulting Google, she completes her calculus homework with other students on an interactive website, she forgets to call you from her cell phone at Starbucks, and her biology textbook is a 5-pound, 1000-page encyclopedia.

Hmmm. One of these things hasn’t changed.

"Textbooks have yet to respond to changes in technology and in teaching philosophy and student life," says Paul Bierman, a geologist at the University of Vermont, who gathered 54 leading scientists, educators and technology experts to a 3-day workshop on "Reconsidering the Textbook," at the National Academy of Sciences, in Washington D.C., May 24-26.

"There was broad agreement at the workshop that the role of the textbook is going to change from a single monolithic let’s-cover-every-detail volume," Bierman says, “to be what some participants call guidebooks. They are going to be the integrating force between all these different digital technologies and show you where to go for more depth.”

The invitation-only group—drawing on six of Bierman’s fellow Distinguished Teacher Scholars, the NSF’s highest award, as well representatives from Google and Microsoft—did some imagining of what these science and math textbooks of the future might look like.

Maybe, some participants thought, they’ll be small 100-page paper texts, like a hiking trail guide, with numerous weblinks printed in the margin. Elliot Soloway, from the University of Michigan, talked about inexpensive pocket-size computers that download content in the lab or field or dorm as needed. And, though e-books have floundered in the marketplace, there was discussion of futuristic electronic paper that overwrites with wiki-style content fed in by both professors and students.

"There wasn’t agreement about whether the textbook would be print or electronic," Bierman says. "There were some people there who thought that within 5 years, we’d be 100% digital. Others who think we’ll never be digital. My suspicion—and probably the center view of the conference—is that there will probably be a bit of both."

But what exact technology will replace traditional textbooks was not the top concern of the attendees. “The laptops and PDAs, the blackberries and cell phones—these are external manifestations of much bigger change,” Bierman says. "No longer is information the seat of power. Now it’s the ability to find and organize the right information quickly and conveniently."

"Students don’t need us, the professors, to give them the information, they can go to Google to give them the information," he says. "They need us to give them the skills to organize that information and make something useful out of it. It has really changed in the last five years."

"We see more students saying: what’s important, what should I care about, how does this really work?" he says. "And we know that what works best is having students intimately involved in directing their own learning, rather than being passive observers."

Several decades of educational research back him up. A growing body of teaching approaches—sometimes called constructivist learning at lower levels of education, or inquiry-based learning at the college level—is driven by students own questions and adapts to various learning styles and levels of understanding.

"That’s a far cry from: OK, everybody read chapter 7 for tomorrow," Bierman says.

"Instead," he says, "I pose the students a broad problem: 'you need to solve the origin of the earth. And you might find parts of the answer in these chapters, and in this article from Scientific American, and on our field trip.' Then let them explore." This approach fits with what the workshop keynote speaker, Diane Ebert-May, from Michigan State University, calls "backwards design," where the goals of what should be learned are established first and then the tools—like textbooks or computer animations—are selected to meet those goals.

So is the textbook soon to the grave? Probably not, the group concluded after three days of intensive discussion, but it is quickly changing. The traditional strengths of the textbook remain: they gather an established body of knowledge within a discipline, present a consensus overview, and filter information through peer review. It’s unlikely that Wikipedia or Amazon-style websites alone could develop that kind of authority. If nothing else there is a need for something textbook-like to provide credibility in an ever-widening murky river of information.

But the very qualities that give textbooks their gravitas are often their downfall. The peers in "peer-review" are not your first-year student bewildered by an index thick with specialized terms. The ponderous process of publishing means that the information in a textbook is years out-of-date on the day it’s released. The broad market that textbooks seek means that local detail and current relevance are not included. And the voice of most textbooks is so homogenized it would spread on crackers.

For a geologist like Bierman these liabilities are so significant that he has dispensed with textbooks altogether. "I had thrown up my hands about textbooks; my teaching is driven by hands-on work in the field, looking at rocks," he says. "I don’t use them. In my intro course, Earth Hazards, we’re reading John McPhee essays. It makes science personal. Scientists are a bunch of crazy funny people. Where does that come through in a textbook?"

Perhaps the new textbooks—if they were adjusted to each student through interactive software, if they could be customized to each location (like Bierman’s field site) for what the workshop participants called “place-based” curriculum, and if they were constantly updated by the input of both faculty and students—just might have some of the quirky attraction that makes a good essay so different from a standard leaden textbook chapter.

"The goal," Bierman writes, "is to retain the core stability and authority that make the textbook so valuable while at the same time providing the flexibility, timeliness, and inquiry-focused approach that the web and other electronic resources provide."

But as any historian of science will tell you, technological changes are often driven less by rational policy and more by unexpected disruptions and powerful conservatisms. The tool that displaces the textbook may not be the one that the textbook publishers and professors would choose, anymore than railroad companies selected the automobile. And the success of the new technologies doesn’t depend simply on their efficiency, it depends on a social environment among teachers and others willing to accept the status changes the new textbooks might bring.

If it works as the workshop attendees imagine it could, and a successful economic model can be found, “subtly, but dramatically, the adaptable, flexible textbook will shift the way higher education is accomplished,” the workshop summary notes. "We see the new textbook as an important part of the shift from faculty-directed to student-centered learning."