ATT8: Alternatives to Textbooks

[It’s potentially dangerous for me to blog about this since I have many ideas on the topic. But thinking about teaching is something I enjoy so these “tidbits” are almost a release…]

I use textbooks in two of my courses: introductory sociology and introductory cultural anthropology. More accurately, I still use textbooks. But I do want to switch away from textbooks in these courses.

In some contexts, such as a discussion of the usefulness of textbooks in anthropology, I’m almost defensive in my description of the role textbooks play in my teaching. It’s a sign of ambivalence, of course. But the fact that I still use textbooks shows that something weighs in their favour, Despite being problematic, textbooks still seem useful to me and I have yet to find an alternative.

But I think a solution is finally on the horizon. It’s a bit difficult to explain and may seem farfetched or even crazy, but I’m getting more comfortable with it. So it may be the right time to put it in writing.

A few words about how I use and choose textbooks…

I perceive textbooks as shared resources, rallying points, conversation starters. study guides, “lecture notes”, and sources for examples. Textbooks aren’t ideal for any of this, but they’re rather unique in fulfilling all of these functions.

Textbooks are also expected to be part of at least some courses. The two main introductory courses I teach are of that type. If I were not to use textbooks at all, I’d have to propose something else.

Which leads me to thinking about existing alternatives to textbooks…

A relatively uncommon practice, but one I’ve experienced as a student, is for instructors to teach from extensive coursenotes, without making use of shared texts. In such a case, the “content” is “delivered” in the classroom. Without being common practice, it wasn’t unknown at Université de Montréal, where I did my B.Sc. in anthro (back in the early 1990s). I suspect that this approach was somewhat common in French-speaking contexts a while before that. It avoids all problems associated with textbooks, but it has none of the advantages textbooks have. In fact, because it puts so much emphasis on the “sage on the stage” model, it’s incompatible with my teaching philosophy.

Apart from my main “intros”, all of my courses are built on “coursepacks”. A coursepack is a custom package of primary texts which weren’t originally connected to one another. I like this approach in any course and have been thinking about ways to shift my intros to something of a coursepack model.

The traditional coursepack model is to send a bunch of texts to a third-party service which will make all the necessary enquiries to ensure copyright compliance and then print coursepacks to be sold at the bookstore. At Concordia, the university bookstore currently handles the whole process. Eastman Systems used to do it. In both cases, the process requires a lot of lead time. It’s thus more flexible than the textbook model but remains quite constraining. As I do most of my reading online, it’s actually far from ideal. But it’s an interesting alternative to publishers’ textbooks.

I have yet to find a way to use coursepacks in my main “intros”. I know some colleagues do it and I could invest time in such a solution. But the convenience of traditional textbooks still seems to me to outweigh the costs of the textbook model. (Yes, this is where I get defensive.)

In some contexts, I was able to use a model which was an alternative to traditional coursepacks, using online reserve instead. In those situations, I could select texts during the semester and have them on online reserve quickly after that. It was close to an ideal model, especially paired with the collaborative syllabus. But it requires three things which I don’t currently have: reasonable copyright laws, access to a service dealing with copyright compliance, and efficient electronic reserve. I can get somewhat close to this approach at Concordia, but some pieces are still missing.

It’s also possible to use “readers”, which are midway between coursepacks and textbooks since they contain primary texts but those are edited together and published like textbooks. I haven’t used readers. To me, they have some of the advantages coursepacks have (multiple voices, intellectual depth) but also most of the disadvantages of textbooks, including a lack of flexibility and all the issues associated with commercial publishing.

Of course, there are people who simply post files online without worrying about legal implications. This is obviously a non-solution, as failure to comply with copyright laws, however arcane these laws may be, can have dire consequences on learning institutions.

Which leads me to the first key issue I identify with textbooks: “the content industry”. As I said two years ago:

If your only business is “content,” now might be a good time to think about diversifying.

(My approach to “content” has long been the basis for diverse discussions, including one which got me cited by tycho garen in such august company as John Gruber and Merlin Mann. Incidentally, I’ve been listening to a number of 5by5 podcasts, including those by Mann and Gruber. Textbooks have been a topic of discussion in those podcasts and part of my thinking may have shifted because of them.)

Got lots to say about content, which is part of the reason why I was worried this post may become overwhelming. But I’ll summarize the situation as much as I can.

For the past ten to fifteen years, an increasing number of people have been made aware of problems with “content-based models”, especially in terms of “publishing”. The context for this increased awareness is the expansion of the Internet. But the process started much earlier, with the transformation of information into “content”, consolidation in diverse industries, and what scholars have long been calling “postmodernism”. As you might notice, I’m specifically not saying that one of these things caused any of the others. But I see connections between all of them. They “go together well”.

The first well-known case of a “content industry” having some difficulty is the one involving music labels, the so-called “Music Industry”. At the very end of the 20th Century, the “Napster Revolution” associated with trading of audio files was a turning point for music labels and the business model on which they relied. Some might say that it was quickly over. And there are many points of continuity in the “political economy of music”. But the current state of music-related business is clearly in a “post-” phase: it’s significantly different from what it was twenty years ago. I wrote extensively about this on a blog which is currently offline. I happen to think that this turning point in the way musical “content” is distributed is the early model of turning points happening elsewhere.

Subsequent “content industries” going through major transformations include films, video games, journalism, and books (possibly in that order, with significant overlap). In each of these cases (including music), “intellectual property” has been used as a core concept in discussions surrounding the “content shift”. I’ve had (and still have) a lot of things to say about any of these. But I’m focusing on textbooks which, I’d argue, are just now going through a major shift.

Most of the problems associated with textbooks have to do with the content model. What textbook publishers do is quite elaborate and rather complex (from dealing with authors and editing texts to obtaining media usage rights and coaxing people into “adopting” textbooks). But their main business model is based on selling access to content. That model isn’t obsolete and some publishers can survive for a little while longer. But it’s clearly not forward looking.

Access to content can take many forms, many of which incur no cost to the person accessing such content. Typically, “content access” and the business model behind the creation of this content are disconnected.

Borrowing books from a public library is a key form of “content access”, and it’s typically paid by taxes. Watching television advertisement can be described as access to content, paid by advertisers. Even glancing at someone’s “freesheet” in the métro is “accessing content”, and it’s also paid by advertisers. Open Access journals, YouTube, WordPress/Moodle/Joomla/Sakai/Drupal, CraigslistKhan Academy, Wikipedia, and iTunes U all focus on “access to content” but their business models clearly separate production costs from access costs (with the result that access to content is often “free as in beer”). Even a café conversation can be conceived as “content access” and it’s associated with no direct cost in money. (Interestingly, the UnivCafé model does involve some financial costs, which are covered partly by Concordia University’s School of Extended Learning, and partly by donations. I’ve been on the record about my interest in this model.)

The “elephant in the room” is “online piracy”, which contains in its name the notion that it’s illicit or illegitimate access to content. Those who pirate content online typically don’t pay directly for that same content (though, according to some peer-sharing enthusiasts, these same users may be more likely than others to spend money online, including for “content”).

Of course, all of these things are much more than “content access” and reducing all of them to the same model should eventually show the absurdity of said models to those who aren’t in the “content industry”. “Access to content” isn’t really a business model. Were publishers able to get past the “content access” model, we may finally get an improvement over textbooks.

Call me naïve, but I think the shift is finally happening.

Part of it is through the slow transition from physical textbooks for electronic ones.

Which makes this blogpost into a followup to a post I wrote just before Apple’s iBooks Author announcement. In that previous post, I tried to talk about “learning content” in as general a way as possible, making as explicit as possible the notion that “content” is but a small part of learning. It encapsulated something about which I’ve been adamant: those of us who are interested in learning and teaching should not focus so much on content.

But I’ve been so “obsessed” with this issue that I haven’t been heeding my own advice. I keep talking about content despite the fact that I care a whole lot more about learning.

And my focus on content is part of what prevented me from thinking further than textbooks. As I kept going back to those problems with textbooks which are associated with content (cost, medium, distribution, usage rights, rigidity…), I was missing a core point  about textbooks: they intrude on, encroach upon, interfere with, and disrupt the relationships between learners and teachers. Their existence is a form of «ingérence».

See, my teaching philosophy is based on constructivism. Though I still lecture, I’m looking at alternative teaching models, which may put me at odds with some colleagues. I eventually found a way to use textbooks which makes sense to me. Point is, I care more about “building a context in which learning happens” than about “transmission of content”.

My class meetings now have the following structure…

Students come prepared, having worked with some textual material and, in the case of introductory sociology, taken a reading quiz about the class material (teamwork exercises serve part of the same role in my introductory anthropology). So, at the beginning of the class period, we go through a kind of collective Q&A session during which the class comes up with both questions and (partial) answers. Though I often end up providing extended answers to some questions, I try to engage the whole class in the process. In the two sections of introductory sociology with which I work, this semester, many questions are the outcome of reading quizzes. Taking those quizzes, students often find out that they may not have fully understood some core concept or aren’t yet able to apply a given perspective. That Q&A section of each class meeting often takes more than half of the classroom time. As it’s the one part which most directly depends on face-to-face interactions with the whole class, it makes a lot of sense that it’d be the core part of classroom interaction.

Another proportion of class time is devoted to “tangents” which connect the material with diverse issues. These discussions are especially useful for learners who reached the “upper” positions in “William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development”. At the same time, they might be less appropriate for students who (still) focus on “what’s the right answer that I need to remember for the exam”. In prior semesters, these tangents took a very significant portion of the class time. The shift from these discussions to Q&A is probably the most significant change in my teaching, this semester. Perhaps due to this shift, online forums in this course have become much more active than they ever were in the past. Parenthetical discussions work quite well online and I’m convinced that they do accomplish a lot in terms of the “higher domains” in Bloom’s Taxonomy.

During the last (and often shortest) portion of each class meeting, I go on “lecturing mode” to prepare students for the material which is coming up. In other words, I spend twenty minutes to half an hour at the end of each class period trying to get students started with a new topic. While my lectures are relatively “classic” in format (in fact, I feel the need to work on this structure, as I often end up running against the clock, at that point), they are mostly oriented toward giving learners their first exposure to some ideas, concepts, and issues. As a compulsive outliners, I base my “lecture mode” on slides with bullet points. But what I may say in relation to these bullet points varies quite a bit. At times, I will teach students concept definitions which are meant to help them understand the material (these are relatively rare and almost choreographed, with artificial pauses)  During “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” moments, I even hint at potentially tricky quiz questions. Otherwise, much of the lecture section is a restructuring of the material in a way which makes sense to me. This is where my outlining is probably the most obvious.

As you might notice, my class meetings devote little time to summary of textbook content. Even those short sections when I restructure that content, emphasis is on the connections between ideas, not with the “content”.

Having used several different textbooks in my teaching, I have a lot of “content” in my mind. In fact, some of the “bullet points” I present in class are carried over from prior teaching experiences which may have relatively little to do with the material for this one course. While I’ll never go to the “text-less teacher-driven content delivery model” I described about my UdeM past, I often muse about teaching without textbooks.

As a partial step in that direction, I started using a Wikibook in introductory sociology, a few years ago. It’s somewhat fragmentary as a textbook so I also use a printed textbook (recently switched from OUP’s “critical” Knuttila to Pearon’s “contested” Hale). However, were I to expand the Wikibook, I may be able to teach without a traditional textbook. If I succeed in doing so and colleagues start following suit, textbook publishers may run into deeper problems than they currently imagine. And it has very little to do with “piracy”, as the “content” used in my courses would be completely legitimate and licit, licensed through Creative Commons or taken from the Public Domain.

What’s more, I could easily complement the “textual content” with all sorts of things, including “interactive material”, collaborative activities, and open discussions. Almost any website could allow for this and I have most of the infrastructure in place to make it doable.

The only thing I’m missing is a bit of “content”. Not much, as the Wikibook is fairly extensive. But enough to make this experience of learning in this environment a clear improvement over textbooks. With just a bit of grant- or fellowship-style funding to devote some person-hours on such a project, it’d be easy to produce most of that content, including a large part of the job which is usually done by publishers.

There are many projects like this, going on. In my mind, it’s only a question of time before publishers are required to pivot their business model.

What I’ve been thinking about is, obviously, a shift away from the “content access” model. I kept thinking that publishers should transform into a service bringing together people who use the same content. Instead of “selling access to textbooks as content” (and offering some services as a way to force people into “adopting” their textbooks), publishers could be paid for services which are truly added value over that content. If access to content were free of charge, a lot could be done around that content. During a recent crisis with journalism, a lot of things have been said about curation and advertising. While advertising models are antithetical to the learning models most of us have in mind, something close to curation makes a lot of sense in learning and teaching. What I have in mind has less to do with “recommendation engines” than with “localization”. The idea, here, is closer to “citizen journalism” than to HuffPo. The added twist is that some people would be paid to adapt the “content” (including “ancillary material”) to specific contexts.

And this is where the hard work and added value can be found. It’s not that difficult to “produce content”, especially if we think about what we do as lecturers or the “content” created by students. As some of my students just created an elaborate study guide to prepare for my midterm (and claimed that it was easy to do), I have a neat example of how effortlessly that may happen.

What takes more effort, though, is creating appropriate material, such as exam questions related out of a classroom discussion, moderating a forum, or editing a text to make it understandable by outsiders. It would make sense to pay people to do some of these things. In some cases, the amounts paid for all sorts of learning-related services could be as much, if not more, as what is currently paid by students for textbooks. Sure, it requires some creativity to make the business model work. But that’s the reason people like Clay Christensen and Horace Dediu are around. True disruption in the market doesn’t happen by merely extending the current business models.

Most of this has been on my mind for quite a while. And though I spent some time explaining it, I still went rather quickly about it.

What has just hit me is the part about learner-teacher relationships. With all the talk about “student engagement”, we may forget the “intermediation effect” textbooks (and standardized examinations!) have had on the relationship between students and teachers. By moving away from textbooks, we can “disintermediate education”.

I had a sort of epiphany while reviewing a textbook manuscript. A significant part of the problem I had with that manuscript is that it was a “voice from nowhere, talking to ‘my’ students”. Not that I’m protecting of my students. But I was imagining a situation in which we were using this text as “content” for a course. As I imagined this, I grew increasingly concerned about the effect such a text could have on the most interesting things happening in my classes. My guess is that a large number of teachers have had an experience of “battling with a text” (because it’s confusing, misleading, inaccurate, inappropriate, outdated, boring, or flat out offensive). Beyond the frustration of being unable to modify the text to be more appropriate is the broader issue that teaching shouldn’t be about transmitting somebody else’s dogma. Especially not university teaching.

Fortunately, I can now choose which textbook I adopt. And I might soon elect not to use any textbook.


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