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

Is It in the Syllabus?

Directions are instructions given to explain how.
Direction is a vision offered to explain why.
Simon Sinek

The course syllabus is the backbone of many courses; the syllabus is the means by which the teachers deliver their expectations and policies to students. However, getting students to read the syllabus has become such a common problem that it has entered popular culture. A quick search of the international net turned up over 50 memes, mugs, T-shirts, and posters all was some variation of the phrase “it’s in the syllabus.” My favorite being “It was in the syllabus it’s still in the syllabus it’s always in the syllabus” There are a lot of web pages written about the topic of the syllabus Amy Baldwin’s website is called “it’s in the syllabus.”  Austin Community College professor David Lydic has a unique approach to students asking him questions that are in the syllabus.

David Lydic using his t shirt, that reads it's in the syllabus, to answer a student question that is in the syllabus.
David Lydic showing his It’s in the syllabus t shirt. Image source Imgur

The funny thing is I had not planned on writing about the syllabus. However, I recently collected course syllabi for another project. I collected 20 syllabi for first-year majors biology courses and ten each from chemistry and physics. When I started looking at the syllabi and noticed something interesting, the only thing that was in all of them was the course name.

Five of the 40 syllabi did not list the course instructor, only 12 of them listed learning goals, ten didn’t even list course schedules. With all this emphasis on it’s in the syllabus, I was quite surprised to find that when you go and look at syllabus well, it’s not in the syllabus. Since a lot of schools or at least departments require course syllabi coupled with the fact that syllabi are generally regarded as legal contracts why is so much missing?

My guess is a lack of training and models. I’ve previously talked about out why I use models in my work and so I won’t go into it. If you want to read about it, you can review my earlier blog post here. For this blog, I’m going to use the recommended checklist from “the course syllabi: a learning-centered approach” second edition. When I used this checklist to examine all 40 syllabi, this is what I found.

Syllabi Checklist Table

Biology (n=20)
Chemistry (n=10)
Physics (n=10)
table of contents


0 0 0
instructor information 17 8 10 35
student information form (not needed anymore) 0 0 0 0
letters to the student or teaching philosophy statement 0 0 0 0
purpose of the course 0 0 0 0
course description 8 8 6 22
course objectives (learning goals) 4 4 4 12
readings 17 8 5 30
resources 16 9 8 33
course calendar 17 8 5 30
course requirements 0 0 0 0
policies and expectations (Instructor/Course):
attendance 0 0 0 0
late papers 0 0 0 0
missed tests 1 1 0 2
class behaviors 1 2 2 5
civility 0 0 0 0
policies and expectations (University/College):
academic honesty 9 4 7 20
disability access 7 5 7 19
safety 0 1 0 1
evaluation 0 0 0 0
grading procedures 13 7 9 29
how to succeed in this course: tools for study and work 0 0 1 1

There are a few things on this list that are not relevant anymore; student information systems replaced student information forms.  I generally include the purpose of the course with the course description.  So, what do you think of this list?  Is it too much, not enough, should it just be different? There are two things that each appeared only once in a syllabus that I think I would add; one is a list of FAQs and other while I don’t necessarily like what it suggests. I understand its presence, and that is an escape plan.  Though in all honesty, it should be the responsibility of the school to have escape plans for all its buildings.

Course syllabi are the perfect example of where schools could and should help their teachers. With today’s learning management systems school should be able to create a page template for the syllabus. The advantages a lot of the information could be auto-populated, for example when the course is assigned the syllabus page auto-populates the course title, description, room and meeting times from the course catalog. Appointing the professor can automatically populate contact information. Additionally, programs could automatically fill school policies like; disability policy, honor code, harassment, and safety. A form that could be used to add all the additional information that faculty added themselves. Imagine having a form that auto-populates with a schedule of dates that you could add readings and assignments without figuring out the calendar.  Not only would this help save time, but it would also lead to consistency and support both new and experienced faculty include all the necessary components of a syllabus. Since schools write many of these components, the school should be responsible for their upkeep and consistency among syllabi.

Is there anything else you think should be in a syllabus? Anything you would leave out? Would a syllabus creation tool be something you would like to see? What do you think about the syllabus? Whatever you think about the syllabus as a group I think we need to think a little bit before we go into “It’s in the syllabus.”

Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

Do You Know If Your References Are Biting You?

“Always…uh…never…forget to check your references.”
Dr. Meredith Real Genius 1985

The scene I’m quoting made just about everyone smile. The bright young student meets Dr. Meredith who says, “a bit of advice.” The student pulls out his notepad and says “Oh, uh, thank you?” eagerly awaiting the information. Dr. Meredith says “Always…uh…never…forget to check your references.” The student smile says “Uh, OK…thank you. I’d better be going.” and wanders off without taking a note (Real Genius). The scene works because everyone knows, even the non-academics, that professional researchers ALWAYS check their references.

Dr. Meredith in the bit of advice scene from the movie Real Genius
Dr. Meredith in the bit of advice scene from the movie Real Genius

When I was an undergraduate, this topic came up all the time. Professors saying reviews are great places to start, However, always go back and check the sources. The PI in whose lab I worked had a quote from Frank Westheimer above his door that said, “A month in the laboratory can often save an hour in the library.” I’ll just let you think about that one.

However, something I have come to realize is that even though we know, we should we don’t “always check our references” nearly as much as we should. I know I have been guilty of it a time or two.  Why is that? As we move through our careers and lives, we have less and less time. So, we know that review went through peer review, so we don’t need to double check it do we? We have a colleague or friend that we respect, and we know they’re not trying to mislead us so sure, we don’t have to double check them, and so on and so on.

The problem is that we’re all human we make mistakes, not intentionally maliciously not even frequently, but it happens. One of the biggest reasons to check your references is to help each other. When we don’t, we let mistakes perpetuate over and over.

I will highlight this with a few examples from my own experience. How long does it take to learn something? Variations of this question come up all the time.  The number of times I have heard someone say 10,000 hours, which would be 1,250 days if you worked a solid 8 hours a day, is more than I can count. However, this is not true the 10,000-hour mark came from work by Anders Ericsson a professor of psychology at Florida State. His work looks explicitly at top-level performers, Olympic caliber athletes, chess grandmasters, etc., people at the very tip-top of fields. He asked how long it took them to reach that level of excellence and that turned out to be 10,000 hours. However, becoming an expert master is different from how long it takes to learn something. If you want to learn something, it only takes about 20 hours. I won’t go into the whole story of how 10,000 hours to become a top expert became 10,000 hours to learn something since Josh Kaufman does a much more entertaining job in his TED talk.

The next one is famous I’ve seen it referenced in books, newspaper articles, and many presentations. The study goes like something like this at Harvard in 1953 (or maybe Yale in 1979) graduates of the business school were asked about their goals and whether they had written them down.  The researchers created three groups from the graduates interviewed; goals and plans written down, goals that were not written down, and without goals. Ten years later these graduates were interviewed, graduates with goals were earning 3X as much as those without goals, while those that had written down their goals were making 10X as much as those without goals. I was going to use this study in a presentation I was giving. For reasons I won’t go into I needed the original reference. I quickly discovered that I couldn’t find it by doing a quick online search. So, I went in search of other sources that used it they all quoted other sources that it turned out quoted it from other sources.  Once I even went in a complete circle going through references and ending up back where I started.  Finding the source became a bit of an obsessive challenge with more in-depth searches and longer searches.

As I searched, I noticed several interesting things.  There were many similar but not identical stories.  The study happened at Harvard; it happened at Yale, it was conducted in 1953 or 1979.  The participants were reinterviewed 10 or maybe 20 years later.  The most telling piece of information I finally found was a post from Laura Sider a librarian and Associate Director of Frontline services at Yale University where she said,

It has been determined that no “goals study” of the Class of 1953 actually occurred. In recent years, we have received a number of requests for information on a reported study based on a survey administered to the Class of 1953 in their senior year and a follow-up study conducted ten years later. This study has been described as how one’s goals at graduation related to success and annual incomes achieved during the period.

That’s right this famous study never happened, you can see her full statement here. The goal setting study has become such a cultural phenomenon that the Yale library felt the need to state that it never happened. Where the story originally came from I don’t know. Mike Morrison has identified “two early reporters” Mark McCormack’s (What They Don’t Teach You in the Harvard Business School) and Brian Tracy’s (Goals!). You can see his full report here. I don’t know if he is correct or not once I convinced myself this study never happened I was able to escape the rabbit hole. However, it’s possible this false study might be causing harm.  Recent research actually out of the Harvard business school suggests that we have been ignoring the potentially harmful side effects of goal setting. The only thing clear to me is that we need more real research on goal setting.

Did any of this surprise you? Do you check your references? Have you ever checked a reference and discovered something you did not expect? I wonder how much we are taking for granted? Should we be checking absolutely everything? Maybe it’s time to work with some librarians and see if we can find out?


Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg

So, You Think You Recognize the Words, But Do You?

I am sometimes amazed that human beings have any ability to communicate. Have you ever heard the statement “My blue is different than your blue”? One of the ideas behind this statement is if I take a blue object the way my brain processes that color is different than the way your brain processes it. This idea that perception might affect the ways each of us views the world is different from the technical definitions. With my science background, I might define blue as “light with a wavelength between 492-450 nm”. While the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines Blue as “1: of the color whose hue is that of the clear sky”.

Perception is not the only point to complicate communication. If you and I had just met and I showed you this cup of tea and said the word “solbränna.”

A cup of tea with milk, in a white cup on a white saucer. The saucer also holds two think rectangular cookies. It all sits on a maroon cloth.
A cup of tea with a cookie Photo by Paul Bowney, CC BY 2.0

Would you know what the word meant? Do I mean tea, cup, saucer, cookie, liquid, hot, how many options are there? Think about it for a while and see what you think. (Take your fingers off the keyboard I didn’t say Google the word!)

I could continue with different ideas showing the complexities of human communication. However, I think this should be good enough to highlight why I think it is amazing any two people can communicate at all. Yes, I hear you “At least within a given group it’s easy. We learn to speak using the same words as everyone else”. Okay, I’m going to give you a list of words.

  • Theory:
  • Law:
  • Insult:
  • Abstract:
  • Significant:
  • Sensitive:

These are all words in the English language. Words that most people can define. In fact, from an educational standpoint, most people knew these words before they started college. So, let me ask you when you’re teaching or giving a presentation do you think about the meaning of the words you are using? Perhaps more importantly do you think about what definitions your audience might be using?

What got me thinking about this was a recent debate I saw about the theory of evolution. What got to me was the fact that the two individuals were talking about two entirely different things. In fact, one of the most common arguments against evolution involves the word theory. People state that we can ignore evolution, or we should teach other things than evolution because after all evolution is just a theory. So, let’s get back to the list of words have you thought about them? What are your definitions?

Did you come up with these definitions?

  • Theory:
    • an unproved assumption: conjecture
  • Law:
    • a binding custom or practice of a community
  • Insult:
    • to treat with insolence, indignity, or contempt
  • Abstract:
    • disassociated from any specific instance
  • Significant:
    • having meaning
  • Sensitive:
    • receptive to sense impressions

How about these definitions?

  • Theory:
    • is a more or less verified explanation accounting for a body of known facts and phenomena.
  • Law:
    • A virtually irrefutable conclusion or explanation of a phenomenon.
  • Insult:
    • An injury, attack, or trauma.
  • Abstract:
    • A condensation or summary of a scientific or literary article or address.
  • Significant:
    • In statistics, denoting the reliability of a finding or, conversely, the probability of the finding being the result of chance.
  • Sensitive:
    • Responding to a stimulus

No matter which set of definitions you choose you are correct. The first set comes from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, while the second set comes from my high school science textbook (interestingly many of these words are not in college texts) and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary. The reason for these different definitions is that in science or any intellectual pursuit existing words are often given new meanings to meet the needs of the field. Since these definitions apply to specific fields, they are not necessarily the general definitions that the public knows.

Let’s apply this to our two debaters if we look at what each said we can see the differences. When the scientist said the theory of evolution he meant “Evolution is a phenomenon that is supported by many scientific studies and experiments over a long period of time.” When his opponent said the theory of evolution, he means “A guess as to how life came to exist as it is.” While I’m not suggesting everyone would have suddenly agreed with each other about the whole concept of evolution if they had taken a little bit time to clarify their meanings they at least could have debated the actual experimental studies of the topics (I know its a dream).

These differences in definitions are one of the reasons it is so important to learn and teach the language of your field. However, when you’re designing your lessons or planning an article do you ever stop and think about what your audience already knows? If you seem to have problems communicating with someone, do you think about how your definitions may vary from there’s? Does your field have definitions outside the common parlance? Do you think about this enough when you are communicating? Lastly, why don’t we use the most powerful of all language tools and coin new words when we need them? It might make communication a little bit easier.  After all, things are just going to get worse, according to this New York Times article, the word Run now has 645 meanings.


Thanks for listening to my musings

The Teaching Cyborg


P.S. The word “solbränna” means tan the color of the tea, did you get it?