The other day, I got quite depressed by watching a discussion on Twitter about textbooks. Not, you will notice, ebooks or even etextbooks but good old fashioned hardbacked or paperbacked textbooks; the sort we used to use when I was at school (and I’m talking about as a pupil not as a teacher). Does education find it really hard to let go of the past or does it just go around in cycles?
Even though I didn’t agree with almost anything I saw on that discussion, it did make me think about textbooks and the relative advantages and disadvantages of them.
There is usually much more information in a textbook than on, say, a website. This is a big advantage in favour of textbooks. At one time it was claimed that CD roms would replace textbooks, but CDs and even DVDs just never seemed to hold as much information upon a topic as did the average textbook. Sure, the CD or DVD had the advantage that it could contain animation, video, photographs and interactive quizzes, all of which might be more difficult, if not impossible, in a textbook but in terms of actual amount of information, the textbook wins.
A disadvantage of the textbook is that it could soon go out of date or become inaccurate as things changed, whereas a website could be easily changed to keep it up to date and relevant.
Relevance and Appropriateness
One of the good things about textbooks is that you could have a textbook written on a subject for young pupils, have another textbook written on the same subject for older pupils and others written for adult learners. You rarely seem to find this, though, for websites or CD roms, though there are some for young pupils, most websites appear to be aimed at an almost ‘ageless’ audience. You used also to get textbooks that progressed in series with the learners; so you’d have book 1, book 2, or book 3 or beginner, intermediate, advanced … you rarely seem to get such progression in digital media.
Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of a textbook is that a class or school often only use one, so it had only one source of information which was also presented in only one way. By using the web, a school could have access to several different sources which could present different viewpoints on the same topic. The web could therefore better allow for the development of critical thinking in the learner whereas in the days of textbooks, the learner just assumed the textbook was correct and presented the only view. However, this critical thinking could only go so far because websites and other digital media rarely present as much information, upon which to be critical, as textbooks.
This is a tricky one as I’m sure we can all think back to any textbooks we used to learn in school and I daresay ‘engaging’ is not a term we would immediately apply to them. TV looks much more engaging, CDroms look much more engaging, the web looks much more engaging, .. at least they did when they first came out, do these media still look as engaging as they once did?
So it seems that textbooks had some advantages over modern digital media but also some drawbacks. So should they be used or barred in 21st