The Future of Textbooks. Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete?

I’ve recently read an interesting article on the future of the book, written from a publisher’s perspective and watched an excellent video of Margaret Attwood talking about the future of publishing from an author’s perspective.

This stimulated me to think about the future of academic textbooks, specifically books for a student audience, which are used to support teaching.  This is quite a complex topic so I can’t cover it all in a single post – this is the first of a number of posts on this topic.

I’m a textbook author so, obviously, I’m not unbiased. However, I have thought carefully about the requirements for a textbook and, arguably, the fact that my book has been around for such a long time means that I can’t have got things completely wrong.

Some people argue that textbooks, in the sciences at least, are obsolete and that faculty and students can get all the information that they need from free sources on the Internet.

Well, if you think this, try the following test. Assume that you are teaching a course on software engineering and you’d like to include some material on software testing. Google ‘software testing’. There’s lots of superficial articles defining testing terms (e.g. Wikipedia) and information about testing tools but nothing that actually tells you how to design tests. Hardly any of the material includes examples or explanatory diagrams. Maybe if you spend some hours searching and skimming you’ll find more material. But, much better to turn to How to Break Software: A Practical Guide to Software Testing , a short book on the subject.

The material on the web tends to be superficial and, almost universally, lacks the illustrative examples that are so important when you are trying to explain things to students. The reason why this is the case, of course, is that examples and good explanatory diagrams are time consuming to produce. People who spend the time creating a coherent description of some topic rightly want some reward – perhaps financial but more often with textbooks, some tangible recognition of the work that they have done.

As well as finding ‘free stuff’, there is also the problem of integrating material from a diverse range of sources into a coherent course. More often than not, you will find that material from different sources has overlaps, contradictions and omissions and you will have to work (as a reader) to reconcile these. Alternatively, the course instructor will have to sort out the problems and, almost certainly, do more work than they would have done with a textbook.

So I believe that textbooks, as coherent accounts of some topic, are not obsolete and that students and instructors will continue to use and buy them. But, for sure, they will have to change – they are too expensive,  monolithic and do not take advantage of the multiple channels of communication that are now available. What these changes might be will be the topic of my next post.

Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete

Part 2: E-textbooks

Part 3: Textbook publishing

Part 4: Author-led publishing

 

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Future of Textbooks. Part 1: Are textbooks obsolete?

  1. Good post! I was just about to disagree with you until your last sentence. Textbooks will have to change and I especially hope that the expense will go down.

    You are correct that to find real source material you have to hit the books. But, the level of quality is rising for online resources. I just don’t know if it will ever rise to the level of current book sources.

    I equate it with the battle between open and closed source software. Your post reminds me of Bill Gates’ famous “Open Letter to Hobbyists”…

  2. Ralph Dratman

    I think I would agree with you that textbooks on software engineering are not going to become obsolete. I remember “the dragon book” and “The C Reference Manual” as particularly good examples, but I’m inclined to think your example of how to write tests could be an even stronger illustration.

    In mathematics, though, my observation is that the math material available on the web has already rendered a large number of books obsolete. Considering also the existence of Mathematica and similar software, and throwing in Project Euler, it seems to me we may have reached a point where math is best studied at home in a bathrobe. This may turn out not to be a blessing to those who, like myself, might lapse into wearing the same bathrobe indefinitely and not leaving the house. Nevertheless perhaps you see my point. In particular the coverage of math on Wikipedia is both astounding and outstanding.

  3. Pingback: Textbooks: paper or e-books « Bits and pieces

  4. Pingback: The future of textbooks. Part 3: Textbook publishing at Geek Prof

  5. Pingback: The future of textbooks. Part 2: E-textbooks at Geek Prof

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