I recently had the opportunity to attend INplay 2012, a conference dedicated to connecting digital media and children’s publishers. There was a very passionate speaker who claimed that textbooks were going to die within this decade, and explained why (I’m paraphrasing his points):
- Textbooks are made for a single user. It’s meant to be read alone, and questions are meant to be tackled by individuals.
- Textbooks are sold according to weight. So, where originally a textbook would have been 30% of its original size, publishers expand it with filler material so that it hits a certain weight, which will make it more expensive.
- States like California and Texas have already stopped purchasing textbooks. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of North America catches on.
As schools start seeing the impact and new emphasis on collaboration, and as computers and mobile devices become more ubiquitous, it’s not unlikely that we’ll see the decline of textbooks. The introduction of technology like iTunes U is a sign of the changing mediums through which technology is available; it can be through a podcast from Stanford U, or a textbook made available at a low price from a publisher or professor. It could even be through games, or other media that are more engaging to end users.
The Broken Market
Textbooks are known as a ‘broken market‘, where end users (students) don’t have any control over price, and the market is dominated by a handful of publishers (which makes it difficult for startups to break in and reclaim equilibrium prices).
As a university student, I’ve heard many complaints about textbooks as they are: some students don’t see the value in books self-published by professors, other textbooks are far too expensive on a student’s budget, and sometimes “required” materials aren’t used in the course at all. Universities are aware of the displeasure of the students; will they go the route of Texas and California, or will they try to protect their bottom lines by hanging onto an aging technology?
There’s a health implication with no longer purchasing textbooks: now, young students will have less of a difficult time with heavy backpacks. Reuters has brought to light the issue of heavy backpacks forcing students into poor posture, as well as potentially causing arthritis later on in the lives of our younger generation.
The Text Advantage
The advantage of textbooks in their standardization and easy distribution have been advanced by electronics. Is there any further use of textbooks, and is there a case to be made for them?
The defense of textbooks starts with literacy: Will the disappearance of textbooks also affect pre-school literary abilities? Language has been the unifying element of the human race; will communication suffer as people become more involved with games and devices, and less reliant on reading to learn? Also, as educators start leaving the workforce to enter retirement in unprecedented numbers, will the education system be able to cope with a change in a medium that has been so trusted and seemingly effective in the past?
My guess is the use of eBooks will be adopted the most heavily in the future. Studies have shown that students using a free digital version of a textbook perform just as well as those using physical book editions. While the mainstream use of games and videos as teaching material may cause of a bit of public disruption, eBooks offer a safe medium between the benefits of textbooks and the advantages of digital distribution. They cost much less (in fact, they’ll probably be free), and they still require the use of reading.
Socrates once lamented the use of texts would destroy the Greek use of mental abilities to memorize and recall information, and diminish oral storytelling. I have no doubt that our capacity for rote memorization might have dwindled (only to be encouraged by multiple choice exams), but we’ve still managed to advance as a civilization. Is our concern with literacy founded, or is it similar to Socrates’ unnecessary worry?
As Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”