Reconsidering the Textbook

Bierman, P., C. Massey, and C. Manduca (2006), Reconsidering the Textbook, Eos Trans. AGU, 87(31), 306.

An edited version of this paper was published by AGU. Copyright (2006) American Geophysical Union.
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(Unedited Preprint)

Reconsidering the Textbook

Is the printed science textbook a massive, slow moving dinosaur headed for extinction, doomed by its inability to evolve in the face of a fast moving technology bolide? In 10 years, will students still carry printed tomes in their backpacks, or will electronic media have replaced the textbook, leaving it about as useful as yesterday's typewriter or adding machine? With the explosion of digital technology in students' lives and the increasing awareness among geosciences faculty that established teaching techniques are becoming less effective for this generation of students, the time is ripe to reconsider the textbook.

More than 50 leading scientists, educators, and technology professionals 'reconsidered the textbook' during a recent intensive threeday workshop funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), which was held at the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), in Washington, D.C. Through small and large group discussions, the assembled group examined the current state of the textbook and its relationship to the growing number of electronic tools that also serve as learning resources for today's students. Together, the participants looked forward and—based on their knowledge of student learning, technology, and effective educational strategies— imagined the textbook of the future.

At the core of the workshop were seven NSF Director's Distinguished Teaching Scholars and five NSF CAREER awardees. Private-sector participants included representatives from Google, Microsoft, Science Education Solutions, Key Curriculum Press, and the Center for Applied Special Technologies. Over one-third of the attendees were program officers or Einstein Fellows associated with NSF. Together, this diverse group represented many science disciplines including engineering, Earth science, education, math, computer science, biosciences, physics, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics, and technology.

After three days of extensive discussion by experts in a variety of different fields, the participants concluded that textbooks are not dead but that their appearance and roles are changing quickly. There was broad consensus that textbooks serve to gather and lend authority to an established body of knowledge in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines; they function both as a mechanism for initial learning and as a reference. However, in the past decade, dramatic changes in technology have altered the relationship between students and information. The World Wide Web and search engines such as Google put information at students' fingertips. No longer is information itself power; rather, power is gained from the ability to access the right information quickly.

The Textbook of the Future

Conference participants agreed that the printed textbook does not serve well for the nonexpert. Only the index and table of contents sort the printed textbook, and for the learner who does not know the structure of the field or its specific vocabulary, such sorting is likely of limited use. Information in textbooks not only is difficult to find, but recent advances or findings cannot quickly be incorporated in a revision cycle than spans several years; thus, the perceived relevancy of the printed textbook is diminished, meeting participants concluded. Today's science texts often are adorned with compact discs that provide auxiliary materials or are linked to Web sites containing more up to date information or problem sets for the students. Attendees indicated that these additions are the first steps down the road mapped out below.

The textbook of the future will be more than a static printed volume, according to the meeting participants. It will function as a guide, interweaving and coordinating a variety of different learning resources including animations, simulations, and interactive exercises. Such a package of resources would be easily searchable, and thus would be learner accessible with a flexible electronic interface. The textbook, whether printed or electronic, will be the organizing hub of an integrated learning environment where the student experience is key. The goal here is to retain the core stability and authority that make the textbook so valuable while at the same time to provide the flexibility, timeliness, and inquiry-focused approach that the Web and other electronic resources offer.

Because of this integration between printed and electronic media, the group imagined a textbook that could become increasingly adaptable, customizable, and responsive. They envisioned that it would be far slimmer than today's encyclopedic texts, and more like a guidebook: a short, concise volume with links to other materials, something akin to a thin, Web-linked travel guide one might take abroad. Modularity, or the ability to build a textbook that specifically fits the goals and content of each course, is the ideal. Such a text could be customized to provide a place-based learning environment for location-sensitive fields such as geology and engineering while at the same time ensuring that the learner is exposed to the most important tenets of the discipline.

The ideal text would be customizable not only by content but also by level, allowing individual students to learn more deeply by accessing increasingly advanced material if they are interested. As a guide, the textbook of the future and all its component parts should help students make connections among a variety of ideas and concepts, all the while encouraging higher-level thinking. The text thus would be a central part of a dynamic learning environment, meeting attendees agreed.

Creating learner engagement is key to learning, and an adaptable, hybrid textbook likely would increase such engagement, the group indicated. Adaptability and linkage to a variety of other learning resources would provide increased access and relevancy for students from different cultures as well as for those with different preferred learning styles. Place-based curricula would allow learners to understand otherwise abstract material in a meaningful context. Intelligent software that responds interactively to student progress would guide the learner based on past successes, failures, and interests. Clearly, a course management system is integral to the textbook of the future, attendees noted.

Creating the textbook of the future will be a collaborative effort involving not only faculty and publishers but also experts in learning and technology. The social organization used in the creation of successful, well-integrated learning materials is and will continue to be complex. Despite this challenge, meeting participants recognized that the real hurdle likely will be convincing faculty to accept rather than marginalize these new ideas and materials. The textbook in any form is only part of the equation for positive change; faculty and student acceptance of any new learning paradigm is critical. Here, the group identified a great need and many opportunities for rigorous assessment. Indeed, such objective evaluation is critical to add value and to encourage adoption. For such a major change in textbook structure to move forward, it must be grounded in evidence demonstrating that it represents an improvement over existing textbooks.

Participants noted that it is not clear how to get from the textbook of today to the textbook of tomorrow. Questions abound, including: who will create the textbooks of the future, how will they be accessed, and what is the business model for their creation and maintenance? The existing paradigm of textbook creation has strong economic incentives for the faculty author as well as for the publishing firm, but some participants asked, what happens if future texts are created by faculty, with essentially publisher-free publishing? In this scenario, who would take on the role of the publisher in project management and educational review to ensure a cohesive product?

Some participants wondered if perhaps a wholly new model, the unforeseen disruptive technology, might evolve along the lines of Wikipedia, a community-authored encyclopedia where any registered user can alter content. If so, what are the incentives for contributors, who will create content, and how will intellectual property rights evolve? Clearly, sustainability of any future endeavor is key. Without private-sector involvement, it is not clear what resources will support the development, production, and revision of learning tools, several meeting participants noted. Could it be that the democratization provided by the Web will allow consumers, both faculty and students, to evaluate textbooks and provide informative commentary? Perhaps a community feedback system, such as that provided by and other on-line businesses, which allows users to evaluate products and share these evaluations with others, will evolve, thus allowing for more informed selection of learning resources.

Conference attendees suspected that the creation and adoption of this new style of textbook, the textbook of the future, will be an unanticipated but critical and major agent of change in the educational system. Subtly, but dramatically, the adaptable, flexible textbook will shift the way in which higher education is accomplished. This new textbook will be an important part of the shift from faculty- directed to student-centered learning, participants agreed. In the end, the group envisioned a system of learning resources that is responsive to student needs and adaptable to different learning styles, and a system where students increasingly control the use of their texts. Participants concluded that adaptable textbooks, catering to different learning styles and intensities, could dramatically broaden the audience for formal as well as informal science education by making learning far more inviting for distance, independent, and out-of-field learners.

The NSF/NAS "Reconsidering the Textbook" workshop was held in Washington D.C. on 24– 26 May. The workshop was funded by NSF grant DUE-0549185. A variety of additional information can be obtained from the workshop Web page ( textbook) including the conference program, list of attendees, presentations by the nine speakers who were selected to stimulate discussion, reports from breakout groups, summaries reflecting participants' thinking on the current state of the textbook and on a vision for the future of learning resources, and online resources related to the textbook of today and the future.