Volume 9 No 2 Summer 2012


Are Textbooks Going the Way of the Dinosaur?
by Nancy Swisher

"(They) seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever." Thus, in Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates famously denounced the new technology of "books," lamenting their lack of interactivity and calling them "orphaned remainders of living speech."

Fast forwarding to the 21st century, we hear the pronouncement by Nicholas Negroponte, founder and Chairman Emeritus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab, that the physical book is dead. As MG Siegler elaborates in his post on the TechCrunch website, Negroponte didn't mean that books would be completely dead, but that digital books would soon largely replace physical books, citing a report from Amazon.com that sales of books for the Kindle have surpassed sales of hardcover books. Negroponte compares the trend toward digital books to what has happened in the film industry as the use of digital cameras has reached critical mass. He notes that as early as the 1980s the writing was on the wall that physical film was going to die, even though companies like Kodak were in denial.

Siegler points out that Negroponte's argument is related to his One Laptop per Child Foundation, adding that on those laptops, he can include hundreds or thousands of books to ship to children around the world, obviously an impossibility for physical books.

Microsoft's Bill Gates sees textbooks as particularly problematic for the educational system. Even in grade schools, he states, they can be 300 pages for a book about math. "They're giant, intimidating books. I look at them and think: what on Earth is in there?"

According to Gates, our text books are three times longer than the equivalents in Asia, where they're beating us in many ways with education. Gates sees textbooks as built by committee and cluttered with too many unnecessary "bells and whistles."

"The textbook market is perhaps one of the biggest rackets in the academic publishing industry," says David Parry, assistant professor of Emergent Media and Communications at the University of Texas-Dallas. He believes that textbooks should be free and accessible to all.

Victor Hu, head of education technology and services for Goldman Sachs, sums up the viewpoint of those who argue for the value and inevitability of a transition from analog to digital learning media: "Technology is doing to education what it's done to countless other industries: disrupting it," Hu says. "Where education once was static, bound to a textbook, now it's moving to a global, interdisciplinary model."

In many countries, from Spain to China, students are no longer required to buy expensive hardcopy textbooks. They can access learning materials in various ways, including borrowing books from a library, downloading parts or all of a digital text, or watching videos created by their instructors and by the best educators around the world. In South Korea, one of the most digitally advanced countries in the world, most students are no longer using hardcopy texts.

Granted, many young people (and their teachers) in developing countries may not have access to the internet and may not possess laptops or tablets, just as in the past books have been scarce. However, there is a global push and collaboration among many educational, philanthropical, governmental and other organizations to equip students around the world with digital devices.

Driven and supported by a new pedagogy for the 21st century, there appears to be an inexorable global march toward digital learning instruments, leaving physical textbooks behind.