The Textbook Unbound

Over the past two months I have attended a few conferences on the future of education. While I was excited to see the many changes headed our way, one thing bothered me: the burdensome attachment to the textbook. It seems that in education, we can’t get past the notion of the textbook. In its most basic sense, the textbook is a bound product by which a systematic path to education is paved, but isn’t there more in this day and age?

If we want to move forward, we need to look beyond the textbook and instead at the larger concept of course materials. The study of biology is not a biology textbook along with lectures built around the book; it is a set of concepts that are collectively used to demonstrate and explain the basics of life on earth. Why do we need to follow chapters 1-22 in order to master these concepts? We don’t.

The future of education is in front of us, the bound textbook is behind us. Innovative educators need to find a way to determine the concepts they want to teach in class and then find the best resources and methods for doing so, not just going back between text and talk. We know that what is valuable is a multi-pronged approach to education: instruction via a combination of video, lectures, handouts, and classroom activities. So why are we so stuck with following a textbook?

If you know you want to teach the anatomy of a neuron, why not use the video from Khan Acacdemy ? I found more than 2.8 million results when searching for this term “anatomy of a neuron” on Google, including video demos, printouts, Podcasts, study guides, and more. Why are these not considered as valid or important as the printed textbook?

Transitioning to these new techniques will likely be time consuming. These new sources are not academically reviewed like the textbooks used in classrooms today. Embracing (and even creating) the new requires the educator to spend time to personally review the content, choose the applicable parts, and then source and deliver the material. But isn’t this a more personalized experience? Is it too personalized? Surely this is a curriculum issue and we can’t have rogue instructors teaching their own pet ideas, but if there could be some method and review, there is a lot to gain by this less-rigid approach.

We are far from this being a reality but imagine how liberating a textbook-free future. Consider the ease of updates without printing: edition changes would really be nothing more than updates to links and handouts and really good teachers can post their information to share with others.

The Web was created so that people could share information without physical boundaries. Education is precisely the field that should be embracing this and harnessing the power to reach more students and provide them with more information that is more flexible and up to date than a printed text from decades ago.