As Textbooks Depart, We Bid Them a Fond Adieu
Did you all see this in the Times today? tinyurl.com/yflfewj Macmillan, a large textbook publisher, is trying an interesting experiement. It is turning some college textbook into ebooks with a lower price and the feature that the professor can customize the book — from adding or removing chapters (as has been true for a decade) to altering individual lines or swaping in or our specific graphs or charts. It is easy enough to see the danger — as the article itself points out, an Intelligent Design hijack of, say, a Biology text. But my suspicion is that, if these products take hold, there will be a range of responses from professors — from those who are glad to leave well enough alone and have the publisher do the work for them to those who spend late nights adding or editing to suit their ideas. But there is a larger point here: the dynamic ebook version of a classroom text is a clear evolutionary step. The textbook is simply not a book, it is a course tool. And the better textbooks become at serving courses — for example by being modified to the exact needs of individual districts, or even classes, or by being delivered cheaply to digital devices, sparing kids’ backs and backpacks, the better.
The textbook which is delivered through the computer and is taylored to fit the precise needs of a class may well be a really good instructional resource — and it will, just as clearly, not be a book. We will have the helping-stream, flowing alongisde the the weekly and monthly routine of the classroom teacher. It will have ever more tools she can use, ever more features she can modify to match the changing needs of her students, ever more ways to bring up-to-the-moment discoveries and events into her classroom. It won’t be a book at all, it will be a dynamic toolbox always at hand for teacher and class. Macmillan is calling its product Dynamicbooks — but why keep the word "book" in there except for some nostalgic desire not to totally leave the shore before you sail off into the ocean. These are teaching machines — and lets hope they get better and better at being just that. Because that leaves books, real books with authors, voice, point of view, narrative skill, design excellence, to us.
Now clearly the teaching machines will go to colleges first — and in the K-12 universe the district or school may have some say in how much an individual teacher can modify — but I take this article as a hopeful sign. Textbooks are moving on in their evolution — sail on textbooks into your digitual future — and leave the book part to us.