Textbooks forming a ladder with a student climbing up. At the top is a graduation cap.

Why do we still have basic textbooks in higher ed?

Here are some ideas for fixing the problem

Textbooks, particularly basic textbooks, are not very efficient containers of information in the Digital Age and represent pernicious cost-drivers for our students. We need to reconsider their role in the modern instructional landscape. A recent study by the College Board indicated that the average cost for a year’s worth of textbooks is over $1200. That’s roughly equivalent to a year’s worth of in-district tuition at my community college.

There is widespread acceptance that this is a national problem and a lot of efforts, stretching all the way from open educational resources (OER) to Congress, have been initiated over the last decade in an attempt to address this issue. All of these efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, miss a basic point: We are still thinking in an industrial mode when it comes to role of the book in our world. These efforts all seek to make books cheaper without asking the question of what their role in education is in the first place.

The problem with textbooks

For centuries, books have formed the backbone of our educational experiences. The earliest universities coalesced around their bibliographic collections. You went to Oxford to “read” history because that was literally where the books were. Even with the advent of printing, books were still a scarce and precious resource. However, books are not the ideas contained in them. They are merely the repositories for the ideas in them and those two are often conflated. The Digital Age is awash with ideas not contained in books. The world of textbooks ignores this basic fact.

Basic textbooks have never been a rich lode of ideas to start with. They rarely contain very rich information and usually sacrifice depth for breadth. They suffer from, and mirror, the lecture mentality of education. When you have to exhort faculty “not to teach the textbook,” you are exhorting them not to lecture–or worse–read the textbook to their classes.

In the Digital Age there is little in a basic government, history, English, or math textbook that isn’t available in digital format. They are the paper equivalent of the library at Oxford and we are expected to go there “to read” as if the ideas of the world are still contained within their covers.

So why do we have them? The short answer I’m usually given is this: “The adjuncts need them because it’s not fair to force them to curate the material for their courses” (or some variation of that).

This is a fair argument. Adjuncts represent the most overloaded and underpaid cohort of teaching faculty. Asking them to map out their own courses is an additional burden. But if we break down this argument, we’re basically assigning the textbook (and its supporting materials) a curation function. Adjuncts don’t need the content because it is often ubiquitous—they need to surface and organize the content. You don’t need a book to do that.

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