What Is A Textbook?

“Science is cool! But it’s easy for that to get lost in textbooks sometimes.”
Philippe Cousteau, Jr.

In many ways, the history of education is the history of books. Currently, people frequently quote “I have more computer power in my pocket (smartphone) then all of NASA during the Apollo moon missions.” Today when we talk about technology in the classroom we tend to think about computers, phones, tablets, apps, and the internet. However, a book is also technology we tend to take books for granted nowadays. Before Johaness Gutenberg invented his printing press around 1440, books were produced by hand.

An image of the printing press in the Gutenberg Workshop, curtsy of Cuneo Press. Inc Exhibit.

Before the printing press, books were scarce and expensive. During the medieval age books in a library or lectern were often chained to desks. The word Lecture derives from the French word lecture meaning reading since in early medieval universities the Faculty member “Lecturer” would stand at the front of the class and read from the primary book. After all the University only had one of these books. Mass production of books changed all this and allowed “the spread of learning to the masses.”

In recent years there has been a lot of discussions about textbooks. Many of these discussions revolve around problems with the mass mark textbook, high cost, the rigidity of the curriculum, and the relatively long time to update. The most commonly offered solution to these complaints is the opensource textbooks. The various open source projects provide books that are free, editable, and adaptable. There has also been a lot of work looking at digital and multimedia textbooks.

The one thing that is clear we are currently involved in an in-depth and involved discussion about the future of the textbook. What will a textbook look like and what will its source be in a few years or a decade? I don’t know, but maybe we are remembering that the textbook is technology deserving of thought and work.

In my mind, one of the exciting things about all the textbook discussion is perhaps the unstated implicit point. All these arguments suggest that the textbook is still an essential component of the educational process. Very few of these discussions suggest we eliminate the textbook. Which I think is probably a very sound and vital point.

A while ago I was asked to review a couple of open-source textbooks (No, I am not going to tell you which ones, many have changed). What struck me was that many of these books were over a 1000 pages. The reason for this was to allow instructors to pick and choose the parts that best suit their class. While this seems like a good idea, the individual topics all seemed to be incredibly shallow. My guess is this was done, due to the amount of time available to create the book and the number of topics covered. While this list of books was not extensive, the books reviewed did not meet our needs, and the school ended up going with a customized book from a publisher.

The other problem I noticed with some of these books was a lack or limited amount of layout. The content of a book is only part of what makes a book. Layout and white space enhance readability and make sure the location of graphics make sense. I suspect a lot of this was left out for practical reasons. It’s hard to edit text that has already been typeset. If any of you have published a book or article, you probably remember how much it cost to make a change to a galley proof (the galley proof is typesetting). This type of typesetting would make it hard to customize open-source texts. I suspect layout is going to be the place were HTML versions of open-source textbooks will shine since we already have a well-established means of separating content from style with CSS.

Beyond layout future updates to open-source projects worries me. While a lot of nonprofits and government agencies have invested a lot of money creating open-source textbooks, what is the likelihood that the same organizations will dump massive amounts of money into updating these books? However, I’m not going into the costs of publishing an open-source textbook. Tony Bates did a great job in his post about his open-source textbook, you can read it here.

Beyond the talks concerning costs, I want to add to this revitalization of the technology called the textbook. I want to expand the discussion, what is a textbook? The textbook has been around a long time. Over that time, we have learned a lot about pedagogy, the nature of learning, and instructional design. If we apply the information, we know about learning how would that change the textbook? What do we want for the textbook to do? What would be the best textbook today and into the immediate future? Truthfully, the variations in people, subjects, and schools make it all but impossible to create the best textbook, so I guess the best means a textbook that is the most useful to the largest group of people.

Or maybe we must limit ourselves further perhaps the best textbook helps the most students in a single class.

What do you want from a textbook? Is the purpose of the book to prep students for class, help them review after class, or both? I come back to this question a lot because of the second question, does it matter? Is there a difference in how we write a book if it was meant to prep students or help them a review? I think the answer might be yes but I’m not entirely sure.

The next question that hits me is how long the textbook should be? I think there’s a lot of validity about having open-source textbooks in which the instructor can modify the book to their needs. It seems to me that the shorter the book, the easier the instructor editing. Also, when it comes to reviewing and updating the more concise the book is, the faster and easier reviewing and updating is going to be. I’m also a believer in short and concise, so the textbook should be as short as possible.

Albeet Einstein with the Quote "Everything should be made as simple as possible but not simpler."
Albert Einstein with Quote, Derived form a Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J.

The total length will be governed by two issues the number of topics covered and the length of text in each topic. Here is where I would differ from many of the existing projects. To keep the textbook as short as possible, we should write a textbook for a single class. Writing the textbook for a single course will also help us with something that has always bothered me about textbooks. Most textbooks are composed of stand allow units because publishers write them to be used by multiple classes at multiple schools. I have always wished textbooks told a coherent story that built on itself. If we write a textbook for a specific course, we could do this.

If we choose a single semester length course what limitations does this give us? A standard one-hour course meets three times a week for 15 weeks or 45 class periods. However, the first day of class is usually taken up with administration details; there are traditionally two midterms and two or three days off for holidays. That means we lose 5 to 6 days. Let’s say five, so we are left with 40 days. If we assume the purpose is to prep the students for a lecture, the entire book should read in 40 units (chapters?) one before each class. The other size limit is the number of words in each chapter. The chapter lengths I suspect will vary from concept to concept and will have to be determined by actual practice.

Besides the purpose and length of a textbook we need to ask, what does modern technology get us? In theory, if done correctly current tech should give us improved accessibility (compatibility with readers), distribution, and availability. It should also give us the ability to add in multimedia and other content to enhance the learning abilities.

There are probably other questions that I have not thought of or considered. However, if we’re going to spend all this time talking about textbooks let’s not limit our conversation just to cost. Let’s take some time to talk about what a textbook really should be. When do you think of the best textbook possible what is the first thing that comes to your mind? What was the best textbook you ever encountered as a student? Can you learn from your favorite textbook when it comes to picking textbooks?

Thanks for listing to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

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