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.

The spark behind this missive is that I was recently required to sit on a textbook committee as my department seeks to adopt a new American government textbook for our survey course. My first reply to the committee chair was, “I pick the free one,” but I quickly realized that that didn’t go nearly far enough. I currently use an OER textbook in my classes wherever I can, but they are still a scarce resource.

Where OER misses the mark

OER uses digital affordances to make the textbook cheaper without in many instances addressing the basic contradictions of thinking of books as the primary containers of information in our age. By doing this we also assign value to the effort of assembling ideas (whether they have intrinsic value or not) into containers and this, in turn, puts OER books in direct competition with much more profitable traditional textbooks. Money corrupts this process even further as authors (rightfully) expect to be paid and faculty are encouraged in various ways into forcing their captive audiences to buy books that are largely useless outside of the context of the class.

The basic textbook therefore largely derives its value from its curation function. However, even this curation function is often in conflict with the curation that every professor does when he or she sets up the material to be covered in a class and the order in which to cover it. Sometimes this role is usurped by a department or discipline, but the idea is the same. I have seen time and again how these curation efforts run up against the limitations of curation by textbook. Deconstructed textbooks or coursepacks are often the “solution,” but these “custom” products almost always increase the costs to students even further with little gain in the process. The system has made sure that this is not a solution to the problem.

Digital affordances supply a relatively simple solution to this problem but this is often totally missed in the textbook debate because that debate is about cost and not value. The value lies in the organization of material. The cost lies in the assemblage, transportation, and modification of freely available content.

Addressing the problem

The solution is to put that value in the hands of the practitioners, use digital means to distribute the cost drivers, and provide a level of modularity that a book format cannot do. Full-time faculty in a department or discipline should collectively design a framework or curriculum for a given course. (Again, this is already happening in many places alongside textbooks.) Individual members of a department could then be given responsibility for managing content within a module for the system. Modules are likely to be appropriate over multiple courses and disciplines and should be shareable. A platform like WordPress has templates that would facilitate this process. Now you have a curated framework for the adjuncts and a mechanism for providing content and keeping it refreshed (something textbooks routinely fail at) at zero cost to the student.

The amount of energy and resources spent on textbooks requires that we need to re-evaluate them in the context of the digital age. By pushing them to the background we also have the related benefit of putting content into its proper context for Digital Age students. It allows us to make sure it is the fuel for our students’ learning and not an expensive wet blanket that extinguishes their desire to learn. That will only happen when the content is as dynamic and empowered as their learning is (or should be). Basic textbooks stifle that and are a tremendous financial burden to boot. We can fix that if we take a sober look at their role in the digital age. We owe it to our students to do so.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool Media Contributors

Oops! We could not locate your form.