By Tom Haymes
As I ponder my class in the upcoming semester, I am left with a serious conundrum. What is the role of the textbook in a New Media teaching environment? In the age of information abundance the textbook is a gilded box for information. Its monetary cost to students is significant, yet its benefit is questionable. While content is important, I question if textbooks, especially basic-level textbooks, provide an essential source of that content.
Furthermore, the number of students willing to engage with the traditional textbook format has never been high and may be dwindling as other, more accessible learning materials become available. My father, also a professor, always used to say that if the CIA ever wanted to hide national security secrets, they should put them in professors’ syllabi. No one would ever read them. I am often tempted to extend this joke to textbooks. We should therefore ask ourselves whether there is anything in this box central to the success of our students; if not, what should replace it?
The fundamental mistake here – like with many technologies we deal with – is confusing the means with the ends. The technology that is the textbook itself becomes an object. Professors are wined and dined by publishers. Authors are trotted around. Doctrinal battles emerge over one textbook versus another. Parallel to this, legislators, parents, and students complain about the costs involved. At a public community college, the cost of textbooks can often exceed the cost of classes. Yet very little of this discussion centers on the central question of whether textbooks contribute materially to 21st Century educational needs.
As someone who occasionally teaches a basic US/Texas Government course, I find that the content of basic textbooks is easily replicable. While I realize that there are significant differences in structure and emphasis between one American Government textbook and another, there is very little pertinent information that cannot be found elsewhere for free. Furthermore, in a course with rapidly changing content such as government, electronic information is more likely to be dynamic and up-to-date than anything in a printed book.
In subjects where there is little change in a 101 course, such as English Composition, Math or Science, I don’t see a lot of reason to constantly come out with new editions other than as a moneymaking exercise for the publishers. The argument here usually centers on providing new pedagogical tools to the instructors and, while this may have some utility, in the end none of these tools will replace the instincts of a good teacher. In other words, the demand for new editions relies on what are currently considered peripherals by the publishers and not on the actual content within the book.
Another fundamental issue here is dictating the narrative of a class. Experienced instructors who have developed strong narratives over the years often feel constrained by a narrative dictated by a textbook, which in many cases they don’t control at all. New teachers, however, can benefit from the scaffolding a textbook offers as a way of establishing a narrative for the class. For many years after I started teaching, vestiges of the first textbook I ever used as an adjunct stayed in my class. Yet the textbook narrative itself rapidly faded into the background as I gained confidence in how I wanted to shape the flow of my instructional narrative.
As an instructor I’ve always looked past the textbook because it is only one of many possible means for achieving learning in the class. In many instances it is also a barrier, and when this happens, I have always been ready to turn my back on it (as I would any other technology). Initially, I did this in the form of supplemental readings, and for a while I had a substantial collection of readings to supplement what I perceived as the shortcomings of the text. Eventually, those supplemental readings came to dominate what I was trying to teach and the textbook assumed, at best, a secondary role.
As a full-time faculty member who has participated in the textbook selection process, my experience with technology led me to constantly feel constrained by the structure of the traditional textbook. In Government textbooks, there is often one book that has an excellent presidential chapter but a weak congressional one. I have never found a book that was equally strong in all areas and was perpetually frustrated by our choices in this area as a result. My first thought as a technologist was, wouldn’t it be great if we could mix and match chapters to get the best out of all of the books? Some publishers offered this as a custom printing option, but it always significantly increased the cost to the students both in terms of initial cost and their ability to resell the books, and so it was dismissed as an option.
As time went on, I therefore found I used the book less and less to the point where the last time I taught, I told the students to not even bother with it. This violated several institutional rules, but it made little sense to me to force my students to buy a book the contents of which I would never test them on.
This brings me to another crucial issue around textbooks. An eternal struggle of educators is figuring out how to get students to read them in the first place and finding effective ways to demonstrate mastery of content. However, this ground is shifting as well. In many areas, memorizing content is increasingly irrelevant in a new media age where you can look up anything you need on demand.
I am very conflicted about this point because I recognize the importance of the discipline of internalizing a canon of content, and I believe that this goes to the core of what it means to be educated. I’ve read thousands of books in my lifetime, and I can recall important pieces of content from many of them (I’m pretty handy at Trivial Pursuit as a consequence). It is important to me personally to be able to retain knowledge; this is what makes me an educated person.
However, is this the most important thing I got out of college? I don’t think so. My most important lesson from college and beyond was the ability to creatively play with ideas with rigor using critical thinking. True, I needed to accumulate and build a foundation of knowledge to do this. However, I often look up pertinent facts as time goes on and I move further and further from my college studies. I also use information gleaned from my reading habits to create the basis for analyses such as this one. However, these are, for the most part, things I have read recently, not something I read in my sophomore year of college.
In the end, therefore, getting students to play with ideas is what matters most, and very few basic textbooks do this effectively. Ironically, this is also where my students have their greatest deficits – probably because most of their education up to this point has revolved around basic textbooks. The teacher becomes the one who is ultimately responsible for teaching the rigor involved in thinking about important ideas and concepts such as who is responsible for the fiscal cliff or the general dysfunctionality of our government. More advanced books do contain important ideas, but the basic textbook rarely goes beyond the descriptive stage. New media offers more compelling ways of presenting such information. Also, students’ curiosity is more easily stimulated when we push them to reach conclusions on their own rather than force-feeding them information via the mechanism of a textbook.
So that leaves me the fundamental question I started this thought exercise with: What exactly does the textbook do for me in the classroom in an age of information abundance? Do the negatives outweigh the positives? I believe they do.
However, this doesn’t give me a clear path forward. I am tempted by the notion of using bare bones reference works and then building – or even better – having the students build on that foundation through the creative collection of information and knowledge from a diverse range of sources. This also has the advantage of forcing me to make information literacy a central component of my teaching strategy. I have not, however, found a trustworthy source of this type for Government.
This semester I am using Wikipedia and my own notes posted online as a starting point. I will then task students to consider questions like “Who is responsible for the fiscal cliff, the president, Congress, or someone else?” These will be collaborative efforts, and the output will be a combination of a presentation open to critical response as well as an online blog entry subject to comment and response.
I realize that this amounts to yet another experiment in combining open content with an attempt at provoking intellectual rigor. My past attempts have not been altogether successful. Students are too comfortable learning with textbooks. They provide an easy metric — read the textbook, and I will test you on what you read. So students are often confused by any deviation from that standard formula and frequently rebel. With that said, I go into this world with open eyes and in the spirit of iteration. I have not divined the final answer on this one (of course, I could say that about teaching at large, which is a good thing). For now, I’ll just keep muddling through.
About Tom Haymes
I have taught at HCC since 2001. In 2006, I became Instructional Design Coordinator at Northwest College and subsequently Director of College Educational Technology Services. Prior to working at HCC, I worked for several Internet startups in Austin, Texas where I filled roles as diverse as Project Manager, Business Intelligence Analyst, and Director of Marketing. My technical experience extends to 2 ½ years working for Apple and Motorola in a technical support and systems analyst role. My academic background is in political science where I have two Master’s Degrees from Georgetown University. I have published widely in technical and non-technical areas including, most recently, my article entitled “The Three-E Strategy for Technology Adoption,” which appeared in the December 2008 issue of EDUCAUSE Quarterly. I have incorporated my political science background with an interest in military history to study the societal and cultural barriers to the adoption of technology.
I have a keen interest in photography which I have been seriously pursuing since 1981, which was also coincidentally the year I got my first computer (Apple II+ with 48K of RAM, yeah!). My photography website is at http://www.haymesimages.com.
Current and ongoing projects include:
1. The New Media Seminar at both Northwest College and our district offices.
2. Developing a Learning Analytics system for HCC.
Photos via Tom Haymes and CC Flickr image (second from bottom) via Octavio Rojas
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