Should You Become Textbook-Agnostic?

College courses often have a textbookNot a reader or a compilation of articles but a textbook proper: 

  • a single book, 
  • published expressly for the purpose, 
  • which gathers together key concepts and information, 
  • summarized and organized for easy digestion.

I will confess: I have never liked most textbooks. To my mind, if you're not willing to stand behind what you say, if you pass the buck and pose yourself as merely repeating another's ideas, I'm unlikely to find what you say very valuable. To me, the way the person writing shapes what is said is one of the most important elements of writing. Without that, everything's a repair manual.

Sometimes a textbook is needed--but not as often as people think. There are a couple of strong reasons for not choosing a textbook on your students' behalf.

Textbooks are expensive. Textbooks aren't just casually expensive: they're expensive on purpose. Textbook publishing is not a small enterprise. 

With 18 million college students currently enrolled spending $900 per student on textbooks, that's a $16 billion market. New editions come out frequently, because publishers don't get enough money from the used textbook market. (Some think electronic textbooks would be better--others not: in terms of what I'm saying here, they have the same issues.)

In theory, a textbook should facilitate learning. But learning is not one-size-fits-all. There are many learning goals. What you do for a textbook should fit your learning goals.

Textbooks can make students passive. A single authorized source deprives students of the opportunity to learn important skills: 
  • finding relevant information,
  • determining which sources are more credible,
  • comparing information from multiple sources.
These skills make sense in both introductory and upper-level courses. If your is a course where these skills are important, you would be better off without a textbook. Or, more precisely, you might be better off being textbook-agnostic or crowd-sourcing your textbook.

Textbook-agonisticism derives its meaning from device-agonisticism
  • We are device-agnostic when we let people use whatever computer hardware they like. 
    • Netflix is becoming increasingly device-agnostic: you can watch it on your Playstation, your computer, your iPad, your Amazon Kindle Fire, etc.
  • Similarly, we are textbook-agnostic when we do not concern ourselves what resources the students use. 
    • Instead we concern ourselves with the skills the students practice and the goals they reach.
Textbook-agnosticism could take many forms.
  • Give students a range of choices. 
    • Be clear that you will not be providing page numbers, only pointing them to topics, and they must find the information themselves. 
    • Help structure self-forming groups so students can support each other. 
    • Consider giving points or credit to encourage selfless peer-supporting behavior.
    • Explain to students the goal and invite them to choose their own resources. 
    • Make discussing, sharing, evaluating and finding useful resources a core part of the course.
      • I am currently doing this for an online screenwriting course.
      • Students must examine three books on the topic and share relevant findings.
      • The college bookstore has three books students can use--but they can also choose their own.
      • No limits are placed on what counts and does not. But the topics and goals form bright lines. 
      • Students are rewarded for sharing information with each other. Often students can 'hear' what a peer says in a way they cannot 'hear' what an instructor says--whether for generational reasons, because of status, or for some other reasons.
  • Crowd-source the textbook.
    • Based on the syllabus, reward students for gathering information that can serve as resources for each part of the course.
    • Make a core part of the course discussions about what makes some resources more authoritative or valuable than others.
    • Give multiple criteria and help students practice evaluating resources.
    • This is especially useful if students will do research projects where they will need to use these skills.
In short, there are many ways of flying without a single, approved textbook.

But when ought you to use a textbook?
  • If your subject has competing frameworks, each textbook is imbued with one framework or method, and you only want the students to know one framework, then yes, use a single textbook.
  • When definitions of key terms vary enough from scholar to scholar that it would impede communication to have each student use the vocabulary differently.
  • If you think one book, for instance, treats irregular verbs in a far superior way to the others. (Your students' experience should reflect this, too. It may be your opinion, but it may not be accurate.)
  • When the field changes rapidly and outdated knowledge would significantly hinder student progress without giving them any particular advantage. E.g., it may be no use for students to know about a discredited theory.
But if none of these apply to you, and you want your students to practice these rich skills of evaluating and discussing resources together, textbook-agonisticism could be your new best friend.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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