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Is It Time to Stop Using the Word 'Textbook'?

Posted: 05/07/2012 1:33 pm

Even in the age of the app, the word "book" still has a semi-magical resonance, an aura of intellectual energy. In a world where a formless chaos of texts, images, sounds, and video continually streams past us, a book has crystallized into a stable shape, a shape someone decided was worth preserving. One expects a book to have gone through some kind of process of selection and verification: it ought to conform to someone's definition of accuracy, and it might even offer at least a tenuous, vestigial guarantee of wisdom.

"Text" is another powerful word. The word text comes from "textum," the past participle of the Latin word for weaving, braiding, joining together, or making. A text is a fabric or web of ordered words. Many modern uses of the word "text" distinguish the text from other, less important words attached to it, such as notes, commentaries, appendices, translations, or paraphrases.

So what happens when we put these two powerful words together? Despite the resonance of its components, the compound word "textbook" has always sounded peculiar and awkward to me. Don't both words mean more or less the same thing? Isn't "textbook" redundant?

Unsurprisingly, a textbook used to be something very different than, say, Human Biology: Concepts and Current Issues, by Michael D. Johnson, 6th Edition (list price $162.80, $120.99 new on Amazon, $81.95 in digital form from Coursesmart, $79.90 used from Bookbyte, and $47.99 to rent from Chegg at the moment I write this). The Oxford English Dictionary offers this as its oldest citation of the use of the word, from Nathan Bailey's 1730 dictionary:

Text-Book (in Universities) is a Classick Author written very wide by the Students, to give Room for an Interpretation dictated by the Master, &c. to be inserted in the Interlines.

This suggests an oddly passive role for students, doesn't it? Some of this hierarchical view of the world continues to cast a shadow across the word "textbook" today. A textbook is still generally a book that is assigned by one person to others.

Despite Bailey's definition, students have always played an active and creative role in constructing the meaning of their texts. As they read their textbooks, students highlight passages and devise their own notes, which are intended to record their own ideas as well as to help them understand and remember the material of the course. Then, today's students do further writing in a computer or a notebook as they listen to lectures and seminar discussions and work on essays and labs and exercises and poems and films and blog posts and business plans and computer programs. The textbook is generally not organized to provide space for all this writing, so the student ends by writing notes in at least two separate places, and often also in a third place: some kind of social network.

Most of the developers of e-publishing platforms want to own the conversation among students about the course material. Inkling, Coursesmart, FlatWorld Knowledge, Chegg, Apple, CafeScribe, Cengage's Mindtap, and Kno all offer social learning features. It is not clear whether social learning needs to be cultivated on and around the digital textbook, like tomato vines on a trellis, or whether it will flourish spontaneously and uncontrollably in the wild, as kudzu does. In the struggle to own social learning, the textbook platforms are competing and also cooperating with various social networks and messaging systems.

This is a complex and rapidly evolving eco-system, and it would be rash to predict winners and losers. But it is probably safe to say that to future generations today's digital textbooks will seem perversely and even abusively limited in their functionality. And the word "textbook" may someday sound objectionable in the way that the words "corset training" and "footbinding" do today.

It may sound as if I am being inflammatory and extreme, but I am not criticizing any of today's developers of digital content and digital content distribution systems. Rather, I am suggesting that new educational practices and institutions are struggling to be born and are being obstructed by obsolete theories like the ones embodied in the word "textbook." Every stakeholder in educational technology wants to embrace the future, but words like "textbook" will not help us get there. The language we use changes the world around us. Our terminology shapes how we teach, how we structure terms and contracts, how we invest, how we allocate budgets, how we organize and own and share knowledge, and how we write code.

I cannot say which of today's educational products and practices will contribute to our future and which are evolutionary dead ends, but I can say which ones make me uncomfortable. I am uncomfortable with students renting paper textbooks or licensing digital textbooks for a limited period. I frequently refer to my old schoolbooks to refresh or extend my knowledge, and I feel sad that so many students are denied that privilege. We must all be lifelong learners now, and our course materials should be lifelong assets. Content providers should view the purchase of a book as the start of an ongoing relationship and not as a one-time transaction. Publishers are more likely to survive if they think like gardeners rather than like strip-miners who gouge out a crater and then leave. Charging $162 for a textbook may or may not be morally acceptable, but I am pretty confident that it will soon cease to be commercially sustainable.

Like almost everyone, I am also uncomfortable with the closed, fixed nature of the textbook. A single textbook chosen by the professor or the school board is unlikely to be the optimal or the complete solution for all of the different students in a class. And if course content is to be a life-long possession, it must be extensible and must grow with its user. Every single stakeholder in educational content and technology knows that the future belongs to playlists and content management systems and adaptive learning tools.

I understand how scary and how unfair all of this is for providers of educational content. But any content provider who pretends the world is not changing will have a uniquely unpleasant experience. As Mark Twain said, "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." On the other hand, I think that the new opportunities are as large as the threats. Those who want to have a good chance of finding those opportunities should think carefully about the language they use to describe what they see. It is possible that we can renovate the word "textbook" and discover fresh possibilities within it. But it may also be that we need a few new words.


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