The Evolution of the Textbook

Each year, I’m surprised by the lack of a change to the university textbook industry. It’s been a while since I graced the halls of a university, but I will always remember the sinking feeling that overcame me as I looked at the $115 price of a very thin, yet required textbook for my discreet mathematics course. I was sure the days of the bound textbook were numbered, but little has happened on that front.

The Medium

textbook stackThere is something to be said for a real book made with paper. I still like to have books, put them on my shelf, and I actually take a bit of pleasure in folding down pages to mark my spot and occasionally write in the margins. Recently, despite preferring to turn real pages, I have taken to reading books on an iPad. I love being able to choose my books on the fly, and I find the experience closely emulates the real thing. It’s only going to get better. Backlit devices like the iPad and electronic paper devices like the Kindle each have their own ups and downs, but these different technologies will soon converge to a point where the readability is as good or better than that of printed paper.

The Environment

It’s not all about convenience. Textbooks go into landfills every year when professors decide (or are persuaded by publishers to) require a new edition of a textbook.

The motor vehicle branch thinks it’s okay to glue a piece of paper to my driver’s license to indicate an address change. Why can we not just stick a post-it note in a math text-book if we discover a previously unknown fraction?

We’ve all seen university students on the bus. You’d think they were about to climb Everest with those backpacks. Imagine if we replaced all their textbooks and notebooks with a device that could contain all their course material, and allow them to record their notes (as well as audio and video) from their classes. The books themselves could become living documents. The benefits of this model are huge.

  • Riding a bike to school becomes possible
  • Course materials are easily downloaded, and always up to date
  • Professors, students and TAs could makes shared notes IN the textbooks.

All of this would have happened years ago if it were not for the industry that makes billions of dollars a year charging university students for books. They fight tooth and nail to prevent access to electronic versions of textbooks, since that would make the free distribution as easy as handing out flyers. Keeping textbooks in their current form is the only way they can ensure they get cash for each copy.

A Solution

Universities should roll the cost of course materials into the tuition – if those materials are actually required for the course. I’ve no doubt that this “solution” would be met with criticism, not the least of which would come from textbook publishers. Because of this, the costs would likely be such that profits are maintained. It will take some bravery on the part of the first educational institutions to propose this as a solution.

As soon as textbooks are available in full electronic glory, they will be available for free download. There will never be a way around that inevitability. Adding a textbook surcharge to tuition will ensure that textbook manufacturers get their cut. They will argue that the books will then be available to the general public as free illegal downloads with general impunity. That is true, but with the paper textbooks, it is extremely easy to find quality textbooks that are a few years old, and hardly out of date, for almost nothing. There are very few people who want to learn a subject outside a university setting who pay full prices for textbooks.

The Future

The concept of the general knowledge in any scientific field is really just a large, abstract wiki—including the required bitching and arguing on the comments page. Id like to see textbook move towards collaborative living documents. I think it is important to maintain the concept of individual voices in science as well as the arts, but general concepts would certainly benefit from this format.

Before I get flamed by the lovers of bound paper books, I must say that I count myself among that group. As I’ve stated, I love real paper books, but we need to change things up a bit in education.