Textbooks: Why Are They Still Here?
I really don’t understand why the educational systems of most of the world are so rooted in the dark ages. The secondary school classrooms of the 21st century are not a lot different from those of fifty years ago. For the most part, we cram thirty kids into boxes and then switch them around every hour or so. We usually teach the same stuff as we always have been; social studies, math, science, geography, etc, broken into little segments that have next to no connection with each other. And then every new grade level gets a little more information about everything than it did the year before.
Textbook publishers want a monopoly on information
And who controls this segmented flow of information? The textbook publishers, along with the ministries or bureaus of education around the world. Every four or five years, for any particular subject, some group at the top decides which information warrants presentation to students. Now, I can’t speak for other subjects, but I know that the basic mathematics and science information taught in most high schools around the world hasn’t changed for years. Algebra is algebra, geometry is geometry, and chemistry is chemistry. They weren’t discovered yesterday. I could also add to this list the last couple of thousand years of world history along with the hundreds of books of classic literature that are being studied in school.
Why do textbooks change? Most courses don't!
But despite the fact that the information does not change, the textbooks do. Every five years or so, give or take a little, we take a little information out of the course and then we put it back in the next time around! So why do school districts continue to buy into this year after year on a regular basis? For some reason, this game continues, and the textbook publishers keep making tidy profits of millions as they sell brand new editions of books with the same stuff rehashed and represented with a few prettier pictures and different exercises and questions. Why does this scam continue, I ask myself? I realize that many school boards do not consist of the sharpest pencils in the box but to me it is more just a case of plain common sense than PhD intelligence.
And at the same time, everyone is complaining about students damaging their backs because of all the books they must carry around on a daily basis. And when did students start lugging rolling suitcases to school? This is something I have noticed the last couple of years, especially with younger children. Something is definitely wrong with this picture!
Why not go digital?
It is 2012. The technology exists to have a student device that could contain everything necessary for a student’s daily needs. On one device, you could put a decent calculator that would be better than any of the fancy, dancy things that are sold as independent units. My students currently have better graphing calculators on their iPods than the $150 graphing calculator that they are forced to buy because it matches the lessons in the text book. Oh yeah, that’s right, a couple of IT companies that shall go unnamed seem to have that market pretty much sewn shut. So now we not only have a textbook that is necessary, we have an expensive calculator that goes with it. Hmm, interesting…And some of the graphing calculators cost as much as a netbook. But that is another story and another scam!
There is too much new information to memorize
But no, we cannot let students use iPods in the classroom. Or laptops, or cellphones, or anything else that might give them access to all the information that is out there. They might cheat, they might be distracted, they might surf the internet when they should be listening, they might not find authentic information, they might …. I say that in Grades 10-12, they should be allowed to use any device in the classroom they want to have and use any information they want to use. By that time, they have had plenty of time to learn all the mathematics they need to do without a calculator and learn most of the background information they need to remember. There will be bleeding hearts out there who will say that students should learn how to do math without a calculator or memorize all that useless information for tests. Well, there were people who said that we should stick with horses when the automobile first appeared. I don’t buy it.
If Google can be used outside of school, why not inside?
What is the most popular website today? Google. And why is it the most popular? Because people use it to search for information that they don’t want to memorize and keep in their heads for an eternity. In our complex world today, there is way too much information out there to remember and keep track of. It is growing at an exponential rate. So who decides what is important to learn and what isn’t? You guessed it. Those good old ministries of education. Well, I can accept that to a point. I suppose someone needs to narrow down the information field somehow.
But we don’t need textbooks to present it. There is enough free stuff out there already that is available to anyone with a simple internet capable device. And if you want to segment it into little packages, then do it. Cutting and pasting is a wonderful thing. I think it is up there with the zipper for best inventions of all time. I personally could cut and paste enough free data from the web to create digital editions of any mathematics and science stuff that is out there that would be suitable for any North American high-school. Give me a year or two, a little money, a few assistants, and I could create a free high school curriculum myself that could be placed on a digital device. I don’t need a multimillion dollar industry to do it!
Who reads a textbook, anyway?
As beautiful as most textbooks are these days, very few students read any of them. Despite all the bells and whistles, they are usually some of the most boring literature you will come across. Students skim for the important information; they look for the exercises and questions. They are not really impressed by the new pictures of multicultural students or those obvious attempts at political correctness by having a few pictures of students in wheelchairs. It is pretty easy to see the phoniness of it all.
I look around the bookrooms of the high schools I have taught in over the years and there are enough obsolete text books sitting on the shelves to outfit a few new schools. But the funny thing is that they are not much different from the new ones. As I wrote above, they contain the same stuff! In fact, if anything, they probably contain more detailed information. It seems that most courses are being dumbed down every year to allow every student to succeed.
Most textbooks are right up there with those fascinating films that are made for educational purposes. There are some great audiovisual materials available but most schools have never had the budgets available to purchase them. So instead, teachers turn to the internet to find interesting stuff to show in classes. My point, exactly.
Add a graphic tablet and camera
Back to my digital device. We could throw in the capability to take notes as well. A graphic tablet is not that big a deal anymore. If I can write notes on my cell phone, it shouldn’t be too difficult or expensive to build in a note taking system on my little school unit. It would allow students to keep notes organized without a huge binder to carry around. Not to mention, we would never have to worry about “scrap paper” again. With a flick of the stylus, notes could be easily placed in retrievable folders. In fact, they could just take photos of the whiteboard and/or demonstrations with a built in camera.
So there we have it. The device could contain all the following and more:
1) Electronic versions of textbooks.
2) Movies, animations, and other multimedia explanations
3) Graphing calculator
5) WiFi capable
7) Any necessary math and science tables and formula sheets
8) Graphic tablet
10) Protective transparent cover.
I look at the list above and most of these, if not all, exist in devices that are already available on the market. If somebody ever came up with a strictly “work horse” device such as this that was targeted to school systems, the price would not have to be any more than a couple of textbooks. It would not have to be beautiful, just functional. It wouldn’t even have to be that light. Anything would be smaller than an average textbook these days. An iPad is close but more sophisticated than what I have in mind.
The only thing I can see that is stopping these from being introduced into school in a big way are the text book companies. These companies seem to believe they have the monopoly on information. The answer is not taking paper books and turning them into slightly less expensive digital versions, which seems to be the route that is being followed. The answer is completely replacing them with free information. It's interesting how difficult it is for some corporate groups, despite all their brain power and financial backing, to see the big picture.The American government trying to control the internet is a similar ridiculous exercise in futility. The times, they are a changin'. Those that don't change with them are going to be left far behind. It may not happen overnight but it will happen.
But I truly believe that we will eventually be looking back at textbooks the same way we look back at 8-track tapes Like key-punch operators and blacksmiths, the days of huge textbook publishers, as we know them today, are coming to an end. It is very easy to find free courses online for almost every subject out there. With a little tweaking, it would be very simple to replace textbooks with digital versions of necessary coursework. Hopefully, the day will come when backpacks and a dozen heavy books are replaced with a lightweight over-the-shoulder ebook device.