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The Future of Course Materials, part 1

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I know, I haven’t blogged since November. Bad, bad blogger. I also apologize for blogging mostly about teaching and less about music recently. That trend will continue below, but I promise to write about some music in the coming weeks.


photo by brewbooks

A recent discussion with some colleagues at Grand Valley State has recently prompted me to wonder whether textbooks are still necessary for certain subjects (if not all of them). Each semester on the first day of classes, I go over a syllabus with my students. In that syllabus, there is usually at least one textbook and a CD that my students are required to purchase. I have actually had a student come up to me after the first class and say “I’m getting paid on Friday and then two Fridays after that. I can only afford to buy one of the course materials with each paycheck. Which one should I get first?” The web can and should solve this problem. Could a carefully cultivated website with a curated list of links and thoughtful commentary replace a textbook? Could a YouTube playlist and embedded videos in that site replace academic recording anthologies?

I’m going to take a few blog posts and discuss my thoughts on these questions. In this first post, I’d like to examine the virtues of the current system of textbook publishers. These are some of the things that I think a new, technology-based solution should maintain. Please share your thoughts below.

1) Books and CDs can be accessed anywhere at any time.

This is so obvious that it may be easy to overlook when examining eBooks and the web. Books do not require any other thing to use. They don’t require any particular computer software, an internet connection, or even power. CDs require a CD player and power, but a portable CD player and batteries can be had for less than $30 at the local WalMart (or Amazon). While this standard accessibility and compatibility isn’t completely achievable with digital alternatives, we need to get as close to it as we can..

2) Books and CDs are persistent.

If a student likes a course or finds it particularly useful (Hey, it could happen!), she has the option of keeping the course materials as a reference. She did not purchase a temporary license to content, but physical goods. If she doesn’t like the book, she can recover some of its purchase price by reselling it. The CD may be replaced by another audio format, but the student can always keep a local digital copy on her computer that is hers forever. Since she has a local copy of both the CD and the book, they can’t be changed or taken away by anyone else. Any digital alternative should be as portable as possible.

3) Books have a single scholarly viewpoint.

This is perhaps the single greatest advantage to the current system of textbooks. There is such an overwhelming quantity of knowledge in the world, and a good textbook author filters and organizes it with skill and care. Explaining complex subjects often requires initial simplification, long-running analogies, selective sequential presentation, and an internal consistency that may not reflect the use of this knowledge “in the wild.” Digital course materials must be more than the results of a Google search on the topic. Importantly, they still require the insightful input of scholars.

4) Books are written by other people.

Admittedly, this is not always a benefit. I have blogged previously about my disagreements with various textbook authors. Having said that, the major benefit of using somebody else’s textbook is that I don’t have to spend the time curating my own. Digital materials could be infinitely customizable, but they should not require infinite customization.

5) Books compensate authors.

Publishers pay authors to write textbooks. They edit, typeset, produce, market, and distribute them. It is prohibitively difficult to “pirate” a physical book. I do not think we should make it prohibitively difficult to copy and share digital course materials. The music industry has already proven to us that this is technologically impossible. In future postings, I will examine how we might generate enough revenue to compensate scholars for their contributions to digital course materials.

6) Books have cultural authority.

This is perhaps the steepest hurdle that digital materials have to climb. In the half-millennium since Gutenberg, books have become thought of as authoritative. Information “printed in black and white” is, for better or worse, thought of more highly than information gleaned on the web. Anyone can publish on the web, and readers are right to be skeptical of a medium with no barrier for entry. Academia is notoriously slow to change, and as new and innovative course materials take forms that gradually deviate more and more from Gutenberg’s bible, these new materials will have to work harder and harder to prove their reliability and trustworthiness.

I will continue posting about the future of course materials, discussing the ways new media might co-opt some of these benefits of books, how it might improve upon books, and how we might begin to create this new generation of educational content.

In the meanwhile, please share your thoughts in the comments. This is a work in progress. I am examining this concept because I am interested in trying to build these new materials. If this is a project you would be interested in (either contributing to or using), please email me or find me on Twitter.