One of the new Impact Grants for 2012-13 involves the production of an e-textbook by the College of Public Health, under the direction of Amy Acton. It is an incredibly exciting project, bringing together some of the fanciest new technologies, creative curriculum re-design, and the incorporation of student work into instruction. The challenges are not inconsequential — they’ll need to choose and master the technological tools, while also grappling with complexities like copyright, commercialization, and accessibility — but the potential benefit is huge.
With the tools available today, it should be possible for faculty and students at OSU to replace the existing paper textbooks (“What have I done to deserve such a flat, flavorless [learning opportunity],” to paraphrase the Simpsons character) with dynamic, interactive, cheap, customizable… really amazing textbooks. As even a quick glance at the various e-textbooks surveyed in Vicky Getis’ recent post makes clear, embedding audio, video, and graphs that do stuff when you tap/click on them is no longer science fiction.
That was a long preamble. The real subject of this post is below the fold… That is, now that we have these fancy tools, what do we do with them. What is this etextbook we want to build? For that matter, what is an etextbook in the first place? The e- part is reasonably clear (despite the tendency of Apple’s auto-correct to make it vanish), but what exactly is a textbook? It’s been a while since I asked that question. It seems like this would be an opportune moment to do so.
So for the past several weeks, I have been musing about examples of textbooks. Obviously, I’ve been thinking about those large paper things I spent so many years lugging around and what sets them apart from other books. Authoritative texts (or pretensions thereto). Usually divided into sections and chapters, designed to provide a comprehensive overview of the subject — though I may never have had a teacher assign the whole thing and didn’t read it if they did. Illustrations and graphs: pictures designed to convey information, rather than just entertain. Usually some kind of questions or exercises, often designed as built-in assignments the teacher can use. That last part seems crucial: the assumption that the textbook will be part of a social interaction, that some teacher somewhere will come along and complete it.
‘Twas not ever thus, of course. The textbooks we know depend on industrial printing, not to mention the elaborate system of mandatory purchasing that allows them to be so often so boring. They’ve evolved from decades of mutation and selection to become what they are.
So what else have textbooks been that we might learn from? (This is a real question: please comment!)
Some of the precursors I’ve been musing on:
Cave paintings. In the wake of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I spent a brief time reading haphazardly about cave painting. Perhaps foolishly, I skipped the textbooks and dove into some scholarly argument. I made it about three papers in. The idea that stuck with me was the theory that these were not (at least not all) shamanistic totems of worship, but straightforward pictures of animals, possibly used for teaching. There is something pleasing in the image of our ancestors, stuck inside during a storm or long winter, pointing at different parts of the animal and asking little Ogg and Agg to repeat the names of parts. (It was pointed out at the recent ELT that this would make cave painting more like the original powerpoint than a textbook, but presumably the cro-magnon children could have spent time with the paintings alone, as well.)
Plato’s Phaedrus. It opens with Socrates being annoyed that his favorite student has been given homework: to memorize the speech of a famous orator. Socrates is jealous. He wants the boy’s affection and attention. He also argues that storing our knowledge in external places is dangerous. On the one hand, we will lose our own capacity for memory, and students taught this way “will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” Leaving aside the question of whether Socrates was right about this there’s something essential here: a textbook is a tool for externalizing one person’s knowledge in a way that someone else can absorb it without having to have the experience. This seems helpful. There is nothing magical about sections or chapters. Questions and exercises do not need to be supplements to the lecture part of the text. Whatever pulls of the magic…
I could go on and on about the Middle Ages. I’ll save the discussion of heresy and MOOCs for another day, however. What I’ve been finding most useful is the tradition of self-made textbooks. Many surviving manuscripts seem to have begun life as students’ notebooks. (This site at Cornell provides some beautiful illustrations.) They contain copies of some standard educational texts, which the students themselves copied into their codices as the basis for their education. As they went on through life, entering service in households or taking up pastoral positions, they would continue to add to their books. The result is often a very personal map to a person’s learning and interests. The presence of later handwriting and/or ownership inscriptions suggest that the learning was passed down. Industrial textbook production tends to focus our attention on the production side; maybe the individualizing ability of computers will re-open this understanding of “a” textbook as more generally the place where each person keeps the record of what they’ve learned.
I’ve rambled on long enough. Your turn! What are your favorite historical textbooks (or sci-fi/future textbooks, for that matter)? What did the past know that we have forgotten, but that the e- prefix might help us remember?