June 14, 2009

Seth on why the textbook industry deserves to die


Seth Godin doesn't just 'do' marketing but he teaches it regularly, too. His latest rant is on the insidious growth of the business of textbook writing and publishing, as a result, he believes, of laziness in the market and cynical money-grabbing by a select few from an ignorant system.

The argument is certainly not that books are inherently wrong in a schooling environment (Seth has sold his share of millions of books). Books such as those I read offer insights from leaders in their fields, normally insights which are relatively up-to-date (give or take 12 months) and which would be a nightmare to try and consume on a 500 pixel-wide blog posting.

But textbooks, written as they are, out-of-date, error-ridden by mistype or time passing, curations of general knowledge rather than journeys through learning with personal insights, almost always are the professor's/teacher's lazy option. Says Seth:

The solution seems simple to me. Professors should be spending their time devising pages or chapterettes or even entire chapters on topics that matter to them, then publishing them for free online. (it's part of their job, remember?)  When you have a class to teach, assemble 100 of the best pieces, put them in a pdf or on a kindle or a website (or even in a looseleaf notebook) and there, you're done. You just saved your intro marketing class about $15,000. Every semester. Any professor of intro marketing who is assigning a basic old-school textbook is guilty of theft or laziness.

This industry deserves to die. It has extracted too much time and too much money and wasted too much potential. We can do better. A lot better.

Seth's assumption is the same as mine, and the underlying pretext of the eduBuzz platform: that teachers are paid to share their knowledge, not just with those students in front of them but with anyone in their learning communities, and sharing with this community will make us all better teachers and learners.

Arnie's got the right end of the wrong stick: it's not a question of changing the media through which the textbook is published, it's about changing the very notion of the textbook.

By far the easiest way to do this is to blog regularly, in bite-sized, timely learning chunks that can be read, commented upon, linked to and adapted by students, their parents and your peers. It is much harder for everyone to publish this in a textbook, ends up much more inaccurate and, above all, is less accessible due to cost than an internet connection in every home.

Sharing, and sharing online specifically, is not in addition to the work of being an educator. It is the work.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

I don't know. I find it quite depressing when people make statements like "This industry deserves to die."

When Seth says "industry" he seems to be referring to rich professors. When I think of "industry" I think of the thousands of typesetters, proof-readers, graphic designers, copy-editors, publishing editors, managing editors, marketing execs, printing companies, distribution companies, bookshops etc. The people in these jobs don't make millions. Very far from it. They are not a "select few".

Perhaps in pure science or mathematics there are older textbooks with real value. In the soft non-sciences like economics; there are usually less expensive, more readable, and more instructive books available over the counter. As Seth points out, there are also good free alternatives.

Of course many college courses are as dysfunctional as the textbooks they choose.

Thanks for the great riff.

Steve, think of all the lamplighters, buggy whip makers and washerwomen who saw their industries die...

In general, new industries hire more people better than old ones!

I have to agree with Seth on this, Steven. I work for a publisher of television which realises that television alone is not enough to survive. That's why it's putting a significant investment of time, money, effort and - vitally - reputation into developing alternative forms of public service media on the net, mobile and gaming in order to explore its future. Publishing at large has to start doing the same, even when "times are tough". It means some people in 'old industries' might be losing their jobs before the industry has been killed off by lack of consumer interest, but in the long run the good 'uns will re-educate themselves and be ready for what's next.

Textbooks alone are not enough in education and are being replaced less often than each year through evolution and better access to quality material-Yes!. But the idea that Arnie can use this idea to starve our schools (public ones where his children will never see the inside of)of funds for books is downright cowardly and misses the real point that Republicans will use just about any justification not to pay taxes for public services- schools, health services for the poor.

Ask California teachers who are being laid off in their thousands, who face burgeoning class sizes next year and who often need to buy their own paper for their classrooms toward the end of each school year about this debate and maybe you'll see that this is not about improving the quality of education but of justifying the greed of the very wealthy, tax dodging, Californian citizens Arnie represents.

Let's not follow Arnie so quickly until you realize what is really going on here.

A California teacher in exile in London.

While I agree with much of what Seth says, my own take is that there's no sense in throwing out the baby with the bath water. A textbook should never be the only thing in a teacher's toolkit, nor can a course be entirely dependent on one textbook...but like anything else, it IS a useful tool. Subjects like my own, Modern Languages, can actually benefit from a well written, well-laid out and interesting textbook and while language changes and evolves, it is less prone to going out of date than other subjects I guess.

It's important not to see this as an argument that the textbook should die. It's not. It's about changing the fact that the *vast* majority of textbooks are, frankly, really poor, and a significant hump of not-so-great educators the world over have come to rely on this mediocre publishing industry to provide them not with a tool that is part of a toolkit, but with the "all-in-one" teaching tool.

This is, though, equivalent to encouraging the lamplighters of the 18th century that all they needed were longer wicks to survive.

Agree to a certain point that just relying on textbooks for teaching a class is laziness. The point that is missing, I think, is that no one book or one perspective should dominate a class. A good teacher is like a skilled curator who should know the field well enough to expose students to the range of opinions and ideas. Going forward, "textbooks" should be downloadable in chapters or pieces so that teachers can use what is relevant or important to their course.

"Skilled curators". That MUST be the job description of a good teacher.

I think at the heart of the issue is that the textbook as we know it today is inadequate. Often the problem with online texts is that they simply digitize a traditional textbook when what we need is something far more interactive and connected. I posted in brief about this last night at http://tinyurl.com/l3edr4

Specifically in connection with this discussion one example of change is the flexbook which is pretty much what Lauren is talking about in her comment. See http://about.ck12.org/ for flexbooks

Kia ora e Ewan!

I've listened to rants about the book. I spoke up about one that I found particularly distasteful.

I've debated the cost to the environment and I looked at both sides of the page.

The fact is, we know the book is not here for keeps. But until there's a useful alternative that can replace the textbook, we're wasting our breath.

I sit here with my eyes hanging out, wanting to try out the Amazon Kindle. That technology simply is not available in New Zealand right now. I know. It's just round the corner. But does that mean I chuck my (paper) books out on the street?

I sit here nursing my tingling fingers, waiting to use (true) speech recognition. It too is just round the corner. Does that mean I chuck away my keyboard?

There comes a time when we have to be practical. And patient.

Catchya later

I've been talking to K12 teachers in the States about educational technology; in addition, my mother is a California K12 physics teacher.

As I see it, there are a couple of massive problems here:

1. There are not enough computers, nor network bandwidth, and there isn't enough computer training. Fixing this will most likely actually be more expensive than providing the textbooks (particularly when you consider a textbook may be in circulation 10 years - try doing that with a computer).

2. Teachers are already overworked and spend much of their out-of-school time marking work and planning lessons. By and large, they don't have time to create content for sharing. Meanwhile, professors probably do, but they don't have the incentive to produce content at a K12 level. Even if they did, problem #1 (particularly the training issue) prevents that content from reaching the right hands.

I actually agree with your and Seth's point - but there are some serious practical hurdles to overcome first. I'm actually beginning to think that the standard Windows-workstations-on-a-network model doesn't work in a budget-pressed state school setting - and that web-based applications and content, as well as capable devices, present a very interesting opportunity. I'll be writing this idea up in full soon.

I still have vivid memories of my American History Teacher taking a "Dead Poets Society" like stance and ceremonially throwing out our textbook. He then passed out his own "textbook" - a compilation of first-hand accounts of American History as well as book chapters etc. I don't think the concepts of not using textbooks is necessarily new, it just easier to do in this "Information Age."

I think of textbooks as a crutch for most of us. It takes a lot of guts to throw out the state approved book based on the standards you should be teaching. Its not that textbooks are that good. Its that they offer a safe back-up plan.

This post makes a very good point about a system where prices are out of control. Just make sure, though, that when you create copies of individual chapters from various publications to hand out to students as a replacement for the old over-priced error-ridden textbook that you have permission to do so from the copyright owners.

I'm with Ken here. The market decides when enterprises must die or be transformed - not ideology. Until there is enough online sharing/knowledge capital to give textbooks a run for their money and achieve a tipping point, this won't happen. I also think it is a gross distortion to make the claim that professors/teachers are hired to give away all intellectual capital and research-vetted ideas. Go ahead and vie for free tuition and see how far you get. Our society is built on the notion of being enterprising, creative, and the freedom to generate income. If there is a market for anything, individuals have the right to produce for that market, in education or otherwise. Of course, the Open University movement may also challenge these ideas, but the social constructs of accreditation and creditialization will need to change.
You don't like/want textbooks? Don't buy them. If enough folks do the same, alternatives will emerge.

As for over-relying on textbooks at the expense effective pedagogy and alternative sources of information, especially primary sources of information, I agree that this is simply lazy and often inadequate. I teach an introductory course in educational technology and have never used a textbook. It would be silly and would waste my students' money. There is so much current, excellent, and freely available information on the subject online that makes a textbook unnecessary. There are a few on reserve in the library as a resource for students who may benefit or for certain topics that best provide foundational information.

Excellent points, Steve, and what's interesting is how research done through JISC was showing that it should be possible to break this vicious circle of writing research, having journals charge others to read it and then others building their own research on top of this paid-for research, the results of which go into... paid-for research. If we got rid of the middleman in the UK (i.e. the journal publishing industry) and used the money spent on journals directly on research instead some £180m annually would be invested in research which is currently spent on enrichening publishers.

So who, I ask, is going to set this trend off? It has to start somewhere.

Kia ora e Ewan!

Trend is a pattern. Patterns arise in human behaviour but not always through fashion. Walking the talk is a 20th century phrase that implies "do it!" Steve Ransom gave you a few pointers on how the individual can contribute to this.

But it's like driving hydrocarbon powered cars - we all know this is the problem. Have you got one? How many of us give up driving our petroleum powered vehicles in favour of eco-friendly transport? It'll happen someday.

Catchya later

This assumes typical curriculum can change more rapidly than the text book. Is that true in general? I doubt that say first year electrical engineering has changed much in 20 years. And in the Arts area, what can be so new about Shakespeare or C20 American History that every professor needs to assemble their own material?
Marketing, being partially fad-driven and with a looser theoretical base, is not typical of the formal disciplines. A degree in a flimsy area that changes before the degree is completed might not wellsuited to tertiary study, and its text requirements may be different

I am a grade one teacher. Over the last 33 years teaching has become harder and harder because more and more money has been taken away to buy the resources we need for good teaching. This includes text ,books, manipulatives, resource books for student activities,and teacher's guides. Every year I feel that I have to make up more and more of my own materials. My house is full of boxes of books that I have had to buy with my own money as well as the other teacher made booklets,and materials needed for a well rounded daily grade one program. That is ridiculous. When I began teaching in 1977 we had for example, a science text book ,with colorful pictures, questions for discussion and to explore, examples of science experiments to try, etc. This was HELPFUL to me! I did not ever rely on it completely but it did save me some TIME! That is not being lazy! That is trying to do your job as well as try and have a LIFE OUTSIDE OF THE SCHOOL which by the way, includes MY FAMILY. I have spent hundreds of hours reinventing the wheel.hunting down materials, pictures, making posters, all of which could be put together to assist me in my teaching. Teachers especially at the elementary level are BURNING OUT and going on STRESS LEAVE because they are expected to make all of their own teaching materials and student learning materials. When do we do this? AFTER school ends! And on weekends! In case the world does not know, a grade one teacher can not do anything but supervise, teach, and guide/help her students from the moment they arrive to the moment they leave. We do not have one minute to ourselvess to do anything. Let alone put together anything for the next day. We have oversized classes. chidren with special needs, specific learning disabilities and a huge push to 'meet individual learning styles and needs'. Give me a break! The expectations are unreal. So letting me have a textbook or a teacher's BIG BOOK that will help assist with teaching a concept is not a crime. It is most helpful and we should absolutely get those resources BACK . Most teachers are one hundred percent dedicated but they also deserve a life. Small children need a variety of activities and materials to keep them engaged in their learning just for one day, let alone a week, month, year! It takes enormous amounts of time planning and preparation to offer them the best of what we have to give. So please let us have some books, reading, picture, text books and let's not get carried away with all this techology. A five and six year old does NOT need to be exposed to 'digital text' they need to learn how to hold a book, read a book and use a pencil! Veronica gr. 1, Edmonton

I love you Veronica! The people who are experts at teaching and about teachers are seldom teachers themselves. I agree that textbooks can be like an albatross, and I do not want to restate the same arguments as Veronica eloquently put forward. Readers of this blog have to realize that teaching in K - 12 is much different than 'teaching' in college or university. The K - 12 teacher (especially K - 6) are rarely specialists in any one area. You don't find historians/anthropologists/chemists/physicists/mathemeticians/etc. teaching Gr. 2 or Gr. 12. As Veronica has stated, I too have found textbooks to be "... HELPFUL to me!"

As a few people have already said, using a textbook where required, but not as a 24/7 crutch, is good practice. However, we all know that there is a vast swathe of the profession who do use the textbook as the be all and end all of classroom teaching and learning. From the (highly positive) extreme of Steve and Veronica we can equally identify the negative extreme of the teachers I've witnessed over the years in observation or from the comments of students bored out their minds by yet another tedious pageturner of a lesson.

Textbooks are perhaps not the bad thing here (although there are a few that I'd pulp without hesitation) but the way they are used almost certainly is, encouraged often by a publishing industry that creates "Teacher Guides" to teach the teacher how to rely on their oeuvre.

Something needs to give on resetting the balance to somewhere towards the worlds of Steve and Veronica on a less sporadic basis.

Another first grade teacher here... enjoying this thread.
Unlike Veronica, who seems bereft of texts and materials to the point of having to create and acquire much of her own, I have a different take on the sanctity of textbooks.

Here in California at schools identified "in need of improvement", the reading textbook and its accompanying supplements has become a scientifically proven magic bullet, a kind of educational holy grail that when implemented with scripts and pacing guides promises to close the achievement gap. The competence of teachers who do not faithfully implement said text-based curriculum to the letter is questioned, and the jobs of those who challenge this research-based mythology could be on the line.

It is not even subtle that this is politics promoting profits, the profits of the massive K-12 textbook industry. I heartily agree with points made by both Seth and Ewan. Thanks for this lively discussion.

Just today been talking with some of my students about some of their classes. The classes that received the most complaints were ones where the lecturer had developed their own notes and not used a textbook.
One student remarked that the class would have been better if the lecturer had given out a textbook at the start, told the students what to do and let them get on with it.

I wouldn't for a second argue that the reason the classes were bad was because the lecturer abandoned a text-book - but use (or otherwise) of a textbook is perhaps a much smaller issue than you claim... and certainly less one sided.

(posted anonymously for obvious reasons)

Another related thought-Textbooks for college classrooms are absurdly expensive and do not need to be updated every year in many subjects. Selling textbooks is in many ways a racquet that is sucking parents dry by making getting a college education too expensive. There are many reasons( environment, economy, etc,) not to require a student to buy a $200.00 textbook for every class that has a lot more to do with good old fashioned common sense and nothing to do with being a republican, democrat, or independent!!!

By the way, I agree with Veronica!! Teachers should be given materials and the books that they actually need. Maybe even lesson plans that they could use and change to fit their teaching style. I am only stating that at some level the selling of textbooks has become a business in itself and college students do not have to have new, hardback books to get the information that they need

The comments to this entry are closed.

About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

Recent Posts