11 January 2010


My quickie post about textbooks 50 years from now prompted this very good question from Philosopher's Mess:

Why isn't their a push in Academics to get of textbooks?

Indeed. It seems everyone else is thinking hard about ebooks and ebook readers (or “smartbooks”), as this article, and this blog post, and this radio interview (scroll down to part three) show. You thought the music industry freaked out about mp3s? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

That academics haven’t moved to ditch textbooks is a classic example of how universities are simultaneously the greatest engine for innovation in the world, and the slowest, least agile, most conservative institutions you’ll find anywhere.

Academics are like kids in dysfunctional families, in some ways: they repeat the patterns they they themselves went through. Because they had textbooks when they went through their undergrad training in the 80s (or earlier), they think it’s normal for their students to have textbooks.

Academics also obsess about standards. They like textbooks because they go through a fairly rigorous vetting process. Wikipedia? Barely a month goes by where I don’t hear a colleague ranting about Wikipedia. “It’s plagiarized.” “It’s unreliable.” “They (students) don’t understand that’s not a valid source...” So their response is to tell students, “Don’t use it at all,” rather than, “Here’s the ways to use evaluate what you find on Wikipedia critically, and use it as a way into literature.”

And in the back of people’s minds, there might be worries about obsolescence. They don’t want to be the person who bought Betamax and has a stack of 8-tracks in the closet.*

Books are one of the “most perfect objects ever invented,” so it is no surprise that people are reluctant to let go. People who love books as physical objects and mementos. Fine. Film didn’t kill theatre, television didn’t kill movies, and mp3s still haven’t managed to exterminate vinyl. But the old technologies have become occasional, premium experiences, not mass market.

Few people have such attachment to their introductory general biology textbooks, though.

I’ll try to explore this some more in a later post.

* And speaking of Wikipedia, I bet I’ve just sent a couple of people there by referencing Betamax and 8-tracks.


Daisy B. said...

I teach freshman composition, and I am interested in ebooks, readers, etc. I teach at a community college with many non-traditional students, however. I have so many who are not comfortable with computers in the first place, and I'm not sure how they would take ebooks. On the other hand, they are here to learn about things like that. It would almost have to be ebooks on readers, though, because many of mine don't have internet access at their homes. The readers would be expensive and only pay for themselves if all or most professors used the ebooks. As you said, we are slow to embrace things. And so, there is my excuse. On another note, I don't forbid Wikipedia, but I do (attempt to) teach the students how to evaluate it. (Do they? Not always. But they don't evaluate other things either.) My Wikipedia problem is that students want to ONLY use it. Even with limits, they try to make the various entries their only sources. But back in the olden days of no internet, I'm sure students misused encylopedias in a similar way. Just not this one. I was a research nerd. :)

Sproglet said...

I've just recently cleared out the office of a Prof who passed away, he'd been in there for 50 years and the place was full of optical discs and slides for projectors.

You'd expect that of someone from his era, but what really concerns me is the people who hear about all this and want to keep it, and then spend months trying to find a nice optical disc player on Ebay.

We have reels and reels and reels of 35mm film that we can't play, but noone will pay to have it converted to dvd....so we look for an old film projector.

It's only recently that I've seen new guys move in (and most of these are guys that come from mainland Europe rather than the UK) who are tring for paperless offices. No books, all data on hard drives.

Definitely the way to go

@mafost said...

Good points.

Universities are conservative about their own traditions, which include textbook and notepad. Sometimes, it seems, professors would rather keep tradition than improve pedagogy.

Remember, when the printing press threatened scribes, penmanship, and calligraphy?

nn said...

And what's so bad on textbooks? Ok, I'm used to read scientific journals for my reasearch, I use funny videos on youtube to ilustrate my lectures for public, I read wikipedia article when quick and not-so-deep orientation in new topic is needed and I listen to mp3 records of some lectures - that's all nice and to be true, I can't imagine my life without all these modern things. On the other hand, I can't imagine learning for an exam in better way than by reading a textbook - it's quick, it's often interesting and funny, it has some logical order of the topics and god bless invention of that part called index. In fact, here in Czech Republic the amount of textbook is insufficient at least in biological sciences - advance in most of the fields is much faster than our translators. We HAD to use multimedia in our studies, because books often exists only in foreign languages (personally, I prefer English, but most of mi colleagues don't) and besides, it's quite expansive to have a good american textbook sent to our country. Teachers won't use textbooks which half of the class can't understand and the other half can't afford (teacher included). Not having good textbooks is a real disadvantage and I really can't get why would any body protest against them.

(I'm 4th grade biology student with BSc in Ecology&Evolution)

Zen Faulkes said...

Jelena: A couple of posts about problems with textbooks are here:

Why textbooks have a bad rep
The textbook conundrum

And here are some other posts tagged with the textbooks label.

I don't hate textbooks! In some cases, there may be better alternatives.

nn said...

Ok, I'm not saying you hate textbooks as a whole, though it may sometimes seem that way :) However, I feel that textbooks are much more valuable than you can imagine. Maybe it's because of the cultural difference: I know there's many up-to-date textbooks on everything in the US. It's a big market and publishing books for a big market is always more profitable than for some hundred students interested in one field of science you can find in here. We have books on evolution here - people love it. And on psychology - the same case. On the other hand the best book on cell biology we have is a translation of Essentials of Cell Biology by Alberts et al. - the version from 1998(! - there are much newer versions in the US). There's no book on topics like protistology (and reading journals is quite confusing, as every other scientist has his own terminology), no good book on behavioral neuroscience (other than some basic of neurosciences - those are good, though) or evolution of the neural systeme (not even some comparative neural anatomy). And I would kill for a good book on something like "psychiatry for biologists" (I work on behavioral changes caused by latent toxoplasmosis - quite an interdisciplinary field). It's impossible to learn basics of all these areas just from the Internet... OK, textbooks can't be used for everything; but imagine you don't have ANY. It's far too worse than it seems to be even with all those internet resources.