Are textbooks obsolete?


Are we reaching a point in higher education in which textbooks are no longer necessary? So much information is freely available on the internet, why make students spend $100+ on a brick of paper that they might open once during a final exam cram session?  There are a variety of reasons to ditch the textbook. There are also many reasons to hold on to it. I think you will find that the decision to require a textbook for your course is a complicated one and there is no one right answer. Today I want to talk about the reasons NOT to use a textbook. In my next post I will talk about why I still require them.

1) Money. One of the main driving forces in abandoning the traditional textbook is cost. Last semester in one of my courses the total cost for the textbook, accompanying software and student response system (clicker) was well above $250 if purchased at the campus bookstore. This is a ridiculous amount of money for a non-traditional student population that struggles to get food on the table and keep the lights on. I experience a twinge of guilt every time I think about how much my students spend on course materials.

2) Alternate information sources (i.e. the internet). For some subjects there is a wealth of well put together resources available online. For example, last summer I taught an upper level parasitology course that did not require a textbook. I relied heavily on websites from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Society for Microbiology, and the World Health Organization. There is a fantastic series of podcasts on basic parasitology available for free. I purchased a reference book for myself and used it as a guide for putting together my lectures, but all of the visual aids and reference material were freely available online. In this age of YouTube and Khan Academy are textbooks redundant?

3) Freedom. Reliance on a textbook confines an instructor to the boundaries and the order of the material presented within it. No textbook is perfect. They all have their flaws, confusing wording, too much detail, too little detail, awful graphics, etc. You know your students best and as a teacher it is your responsibility to guide them through the maze of available information. By designing a course around your own outline, rather than the chapters of a book, you can customize a course according to the needs of your students. If students seem to be more engaged in a particular topic you can go further in depth, but for other subjects you might just want to glance the surface of the available knowledge base.

I have not abandoned textbooks, but I do spend a fair amount of time each semester contemplating doing so. How about you? Do you use textbooks? Or do you rely on alternative methods of information delivery?

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