Monday, May 7, 2012

Is It Time to Stop Using the Word 'Textbook'?

Posted: 05/07/2012 1:33 pm

Even in the age of the app, the word "book" still has a semi-magical resonance, an aura of intellectual energy. In a world where a formless chaos of texts, images, sounds, and video continually streams past us, a book has crystallized into a stable shape, a shape someone decided was worth preserving. One expects a book to have gone through some kind of process of selection and verification: it ought to conform to someone's definition of accuracy, and it might even offer at least a tenuous, vestigial guarantee of wisdom.

"Text" is another powerful word. The word text comes from "textum," the past participle of the Latin word for weaving, braiding, joining together, or making. A text is a fabric or web of ordered words. Many modern uses of the word "text" distinguish the text from other, less important words attached to it, such as notes, commentaries, appendices, translations, or paraphrases.

So what happens when we put these two powerful words together? Despite the resonance of its components, the compound word "textbook" has always sounded peculiar and awkward to me. Don't both words mean more or less the same thing? Isn't "textbook" redundant?


Text-Book (in Universities) is a Classick Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines.


Despite Bailey's definition, students have always played an active and creative role in constructing the meaning of their texts. As they read their textbooks, students highlight passages and devise their own notes, which are intended to record their own ideas as well as to help them understand and remember the material of the course. [snip]

Most of the developers of e-publishing platforms want to own the conversation among students about the course material. Inkling, Coursesmart, FlatWorld Knowledge, Chegg, Apple, CafeScribe, Cengage's Mindtap, and Kno all offer social learning features. It is not clear whether social learning needs to be cultivated on and around the digital textbook, like tomato vines on a trellis, or whether it will flourish spontaneously and uncontrollably in the wild, as kudzu does. In the struggle to own social learning, the textbook platforms are competing and also cooperating with various social networks and messaging systems.


It may sound as if I am being inflammatory and extreme, but I am not criticizing any of today's developers of digital content and digital content distribution systems. Rather, I am suggesting that new educational practices and institutions are struggling to be born and are being obstructed by obsolete theories like the ones embodied in the word "textbook."[snip]

I cannot say which of today's educational products and practices will contribute to our future and which are evolutionary dead ends, but I can say which ones make me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with students renting paper textbooks or licensing digital textbooks for a limited period. I frequently refer to my old schoolbooks to refresh or extend my knowledge, and I feel sad that so many students are denied that privilege. [snip]

Like almost everyone, I am also uncomfortable with the closed, fixed nature of the textbook. A single textbook chosen by the professor or the school board is unlikely to be the optimal or the complete solution for all of the different students in a class. And if course content is to be a life-long possession, it must be extensible and must grow with its user. Every single stakeholder in educational content and technology knows that the future belongs to playlists and content management systems and adaptive learning tools.

I understand how scary and how unfair all of this is for providers of educational content. But any content provider who pretends the world is not changing will have a uniquely unpleasant experience.


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