The problem with textbooks and how to keep them relevant


The debate about textbooks is much more complex than the antithesis "printed vs. digital."

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Textbooks have been the backbone of teaching methods for centuries, and possibly they will remain like that for a long time. But there are valid concerns about their current effectiveness. The Digital Revolution brought a fundamental change in the way we produce and consume content. Digital media like newspapers, blogs and websites generate vast volumes of information daily, and social media keep us in a continuous conversation.

Methods and sources of learning cannot be rigid anymore. They need to be flexible, adaptable and connected with knowledge production in real time. Do textbooks check all the boxes of these new requirements?

What works

Textbooks give students the experience of physically interacting with a book. This activity has unique benefits. A 2013 study found that children between 3 to 5 years old understand better what they read when it comes from a printed book. The interactive elements presented in digital editions can be a distraction for kids who are still building the cognitive structure necessary to learn to read.

This distraction doesn’t help advanced students either. Even if they already mastered the basic reading techniques, it’s more challenging to create an immersive reading experience that enables concentration. When you’re reading from a tablet or any device with an internet connection, externals elements like social media, notifications, messages, and emails, disrupt the exercise of in-depth reading, hindering comprehension and memorization.

Even if it's a digital downloaded book to read offline, the quality of reading reduces in a screen. We are conditioned not to read seriously when where in front of a screen because we have associated with brief and entertaining content, like social media conversations, or with articles we read to pass the time. We do not see it as the hard and attentive read we need actually to learn something. As a study conducted at Stavanger University, in Norway, found.

Kindle readers performed significantly worse on the plot reconstruction measure, i.e., when they were asked to place 14 events in the correct order.

Anne Mangen, the author of the study, commented on the assigned readings and how well participants were able to memorize them. She added that a physical book has features no other format has, and they are crucial for memorization and reading. When you read from paper, there’s a tactile sensation to register your progress, as you turn the page from right to left making up the physical and psychological weight from the experience of reading and learning.

All these points reinforce the idea that textbooks are still being useful, either as educational material or learning support resource. Nonetheless, the aspects involved in textbooks production and distribution raise concerns in teacher and instructional personnel. Why are so many experts arguing textbooks are obsolete?

What doesn’t work

During the last decade, we have seen how technological advancements have brought us to the democratization of contents. Educational philosophies like lifelong learning encourage us to use any tool available to fulfill the objective of continuous learning. But to reduce the argument against textbooks to just technology and digital content would be simplistic and unproductive.

To understand what is the problem with textbooks we need to go beyond the “digital vs. printed content” debate, to match the purpose of textbooks with the objectives they must meet and their target audience: Students.

Usually, textbooks editors have a lot of knowledge about the educational materials and how to apply quality standards into the production process, but they are painfully out of touch with daily life in the classroom and how it shapes students learning needs, especially in a time in which that concept changes rapidly than ever.

As a result, we have educational materials that get anachronic really fast and are useful only for preparing students for tests. Students memorize the reading to past a test and forget everything the next day in which they have to empty their brain to fit the information for the next exam. They might get amazing memory skills, but they are not learning what they need to be competitive professional and healthy human beings.

The commercial focus of the production process makes matters worse. The companies that make textbooks rely on the short life expectancy of the product. After just a few years they will be selling a revised and updated version of the same book, this happens over and over, and the investment that schools and parents, and eventually college students, have to make becomes astronomical and useless in the long run.

Textbooks, instead of being a helpful tool, have become a self-sustained mechanism that raises the prices for education, widening the gap related to economic status.

How can we make them better

There’s no one solution that would fix the textbook problem. We need various strategies that take into consideration students, teachers, educational personnel, content specialists, and editorial companies.

There is no need for all educational content to be 100% digital and open access, but editorials can learn from the democratic process of open educational resources, so that people behind be textbooks can be closer to the people that use them.

The same way educational institutions are starting to create whole departments just to put special care into the development of social and emotional skills, as well as to care for students mental health, educational institutions need to do the same kind of effort to ensure educational materials are live and flexible products that meet the ever-changing necessities of school life.

No content specialist, regardless the level of expertise on sources, production process, edition, instructional materials or other relevant subjects, will be able to make a textbook that fully works without feedback from teachers and students.

Digital technology is not here to entirely replace textbooks, doing so would be a mistake, since we would be sacrificing essential aspects of reading and learning on paper. But we could use technology to upgrade the way we share knowledge in the form of textbooks.

Open access contents already set the pace, letting teachers collaborate online to create educational materials better suited for requirements of their specific courses.

The advantage that printed books have to offer is more than enough to keep them around, but they can be more than just a tool to exercise reading and memory, but to unlock their true potential, they need to stop being unilateral products and start being collective process directed to create, and reinforce knowledge, not just memorize it.