The centrality of the textbook

It is an axiom frequently ignored that any technology has to have a reason to exist in a class. The textbook is a technology. If one were to actually read it, that would be a huge investment of time in an era where attention is continually diverted. A chosen technology is either central to learning or it shouldn’t be there at all.

Students, understandably, won’t read the textbook without stakes (a quiz, a paper). Increasingly, many students cannot sustain the attention and access the vocabulary skills required to read one.

As a result, publishers and professors have developed ways to force students to read the textbook. Publisher’s courses read the book aloud to the student, provide embedded quizzes and pop-up vocabulary as they go, and assess performance before pushing the grades into the Learning Management System. Annotation systems like Perusall make it possible for students to annotate a textbook together. These approaches are far too much if we only want the textbook as background.

I confess that I’ve edited several textbooks of my own that I use in my classes. These are classes where I have substantial lecture material, so the book is context. For the first two years of the pandemic, I made reading them optional and eliminated book quizzes, but now that students are more accustomed to online learning, I’m bringing them back, with some regret.

             my new OER textbook

This regret is coloring my view as I design two “new” World History classes (I’ve only taught them in the classroom and that was many years ago). For the first, I’ve spend the last several months with the Cengage textbook I’ve chosen, and made it central to the short recorded lectures. In these lectures I explain the chapter, note its strengths and weaknesses, clarify points. The lecture itself is quizzed internally, using the quiz function in Canvas Studio. Class starts in a little over a week. I hope it works, but either way I’ve made the book central to the class.

Now I think about the other half of the course. For this one, world history to 1500, I have found an Open Educational Resource, a free textbook. Of course, it’s only free in its electronic form. So I’m thinking how to use it, since it must be central. I have no lectures prepared for the class, and am not sure I want them.

So, a new idea. Since it’s free and electronic, I could put it inside Perusall, the social annotation program. But instead of expecting students to annotate, or requiring that they do it (as I do with primary sources), perhaps I’ll put in the annotations little videos of me, glossing the text myself that way. Perhaps I’ll ask questions, invite participation, and grade it in Perusall.

In the old days we turned up our noses at “teaching from the textbook”, ridiculing those who tied their lectures to it. Perhaps we felt that we could leave students alone with the textbook, and they’d read and understand it. I doubt this was ever true, but in a world where we can chose to eschew the textbook entirely, create ungrading schemes, and have at our fingertips more resources to share than ever before, we should consider the textbook differently.

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