Moving Beyond the Textbook Part 1: Why Textbooks Are Broken

There’s been a lot of talk around the education and open communities recently about textbooks—and the chatter is less than flattering. Leaders in these fields are discussing how expensive textbooks are and where open educational content fits into the equation.

But a lot of these conversations miss the most important point: textbooks are a bad product and the wrong metaphor for today’s students.

An Outdated Model

Textbooks as a unit of content and a means of distribution made sense when that was all we had. It made sense to put as much information into one volume that could be carried around relatively easy, hence the now codified weight limit of around five to six pounds for a textbook.

Having single authors or teams write the textbooks, too, was the best option because the expertise could be grouped amongst a few people or groups of people.  

As a distribution mechanism, textbooks are anachronistic. The content contained between covers is limited to what that single author or team can produce, but this model does not take into account the boundless knowledge of the open community.

Not to mention that the actual content contained within the textbook is also limited.

The knowledge contained in a textbook is slow to change and doesn’t always cast a wide net of expertise.  The “new normal” for many publishers permits an oversight in the quality of content found within their books—and they don’t seem to have plans to change this.

What’s more, the effectiveness of a particular subject’s book is rarely considered. Instead, factors like design and writing play a larger role.


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Beverlee Jobrack, author of “Tyranny of the Textbook,” told the Washington Post that in the textbook industry,

My products earned a host of awards for design, innovation, sales and editorial excellence. They never earned any awards for effectiveness because to my knowledge awards for effectiveness do not exist.

Adhering to the backward textbook model does not allow educational materials to change at the same pace as history and knowledge, nor does it support a healthy educational ecosystem. With open and online alternatives, facts would stay up-to-the-minute, ensuring learners always have the information they need.

Stunted Intellectual Curiosity

Plain and simple: textbooks don’t foster intellectual curiosity. The way many students use textbooks is to memorize facts just long enough to spit out what they know for essays, exams, or presentations.

This memorization mindset isn’t helped by the fact students today consume information much differently than they did in the early days of books.

Today, students are familiar with clicking from page to page online to get to the bottom of what they need to know. They know how to navigate search engines and share the content they find quickly, but they’ll never get this experience from a traditional textbook.

A New Revolution

We’re not living in the dark ages anymore—it’s time to revolutionize how textbooks are made and what their central purpose is.

Moving beyond the textbook will spur the learning experience to look drastically different than it does today. To make this movement possible, educators and students need to embrace the open movement and better learning products, like free textbooks.

Open content allows materials to be created, edited, and reviewed by the masses. While the open community focuses on creating and curating superb content, innovators focus on developing better, stronger, and more intuitive learning platforms to dramatically improve the educational experience.

Together, great open content and great learning products will usher in a new era of learning—one that doesn’t include the high cost, weight, and annoyance of traditional textbooks.

Wondering where ebooks fit into this equation? Find out in the upcoming second part of our series “Moving Beyond the Textbook: Are Ebooks a Solution?

Photo by Flickr user Enokson


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