The last time I wrote a post I talked about why textbooks may become obsolete (see post here). Today I’d like to tell you why I still rely heavily upon them today. I teach two broad introductory courses, one is a general biology course for non-science majors and the other is a microbiology course for pre-health (i.e. nursing) majors. I require a textbook for both courses. Here’s why:
1) Reliable Content. While I know a lot about biology and microbiology, I am certainly not an expert on every topic. My textbooks serve as an anchor and a place to build from. For the topics I know a lot about, I can add to what the textbook offers. For those that I know very little about, I can rely on the textbook to provide a solid foundation in the topic. I panicked a little my first semester when I discovered I was going to be to teaching evolution. Not my strongest subject (lots of higher math and complicated ecology, fortunately I just have to cover the basics). Yes the internet has a wide variety of resources, but I can trust the information put forth in my textbook. It has been peer reviewed and carefully edited. I can’t say the same for Wikipedia or any other website (especially when it comes to a controversial topic such as evolution).
2) Structure. When teaching a broad introductory course, how do you know where to start? How deep should you get into the material? Which topics are central to understanding the subject and which ones are less important? Good textbooks provide a nice ready made framework to build your course. They break topics up into manageable chunks and put them into a logical sequence. Students respond well to order and organization. By using a textbook you give them a resource to turn to when they are confused or lost. I like to think of a course as a journey through the subject material. The professor is the leader on the journey and the textbook serves as a map. Of course, a professor that is very familiar with the lay of the land might take back roads or alternate routes, but a textbook can help the straggling student find their way back to the group.
3) Publisher Resources. Publishers have realized that they cannot just be in the business of publishing a paper textbook and expect that to remain profitable. For instructors, they provide visual aids, animations, pre-packaged PowerPoint slides, active lecture activities, etc. to accompany their textbooks. They also have built subscription based websites for homework assignments. These things are invaluable to a new instructor like myself. Do I build my own material? Of course I do. Are there other resources out there on the web? Yep. Again, these publisher provided resources give me a starting place and simplify the process of building a course. To be honest, as I get more comfortable teaching I foresee myself moving away from using these resources as much, but for now they are incredibly convenient.
Not all textbooks are created equal. Some are better than others and some are just downright awful. But the right textbook can be a great launching point for a course.