Subscribe to SLJ
Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Sail On Textbooks, Sail On

As Textbooks Depart, We Bid Them a Fond Adieu

Did you all see this in the Times today? 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.


  1. Linda Zajac says:

    Thanks for pointing this out. I’m sure college students (my own included) will appreciate the savings in price for an ebook versus a printed text. Interesting concept, but it has its limitations:

    “Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations or illustrations.”

    All of these things are good except I think there should be some controls on deleting/rewriting paragraphs and chapters. With so many hands in the pot, Wikepedia is not what I would call a great source for accuracy so any attempt to model after Wikepedia will likely introduce questionable material. I like the idea that teachers can enhance and move things around in a way that suits them. It’s also a great thing when new discoveries can be added as they happen. I always felt that was a shortcoming in K-12 teaching–keeping on top of the latest. I’ll bet the authors aren’t too thrilled after spending a great deal of time creating and verifying their work only to find out it can be changed at a moments notice. How would you feel if you wrote one of these textbooks and found out your hard work might get changed?

  2. that’s the key difference, my books are books, by me; textbooks are tools, often crafted by teams, committees, with authors fulfilling defined tasks. I am happy to see them move ever further in that direction — to being more and more useful as tools, and ending any pretence of being a book. With that difference in mind, authors are not in danger of having their books monkeyed around with — and textbook writers would not assume that what they have cobbled together in any way resembles a book.