A Defense of Textbooks

I like textbooks. I like to design courses around textbooks.

How can I promote textbooks with one hand and open learning materials with the other?

April 4, 2010

I like textbooks. I like to design courses around textbooks.

How can I promote textbooks with one hand and open learning materials with the other?

Yes, building a course around open learning materials is attractive. Thanks to the Web, curricular materials, once scarce, are now abundant. One could design an entire course around free, linkable, quality materials. Everything from M.I.T.'s OpenCoureWare to iTunesU to YouTube/edu to Carnegie Mellon's OpenLearningInitiative to TED. Free and open materials allow courses to also be free and open, which has the benefit of moving our students from consumers of scholarly conversations to contributors.

Yet, as I'm developing materials to help design an undergraduate e-commerce course, the first thing I do is turn to a textbook. Specifically, Laudon and Traver's E-Commerce 2010 (6/e) from Pearson, suggested retail price $178.67.

Why use closed and proprietary content? Why ask the students to pay so much for the material when the Web offers so much good material for free? Why use a textbook at all in an age of online articles and videos, electronic article databases and high quality Web simulations?

Here are my reasons to use a textbook:

1. Narrative and Structure: A textbook provides a narrative and a structure to hang a course around. For this course, we will break the 7 week course into 4 modules that match the structure of the textbook. The 4 modules go as follows: Module 1, week 1 - Introduction to E-Commerce (chapters 1 to 2). Module 2, weeks 2 through 3 - Technology Infrastructure for E-Commerce (chapters 3 to 5). Module 3, weeks 4 and 5 - Business Concepts and Social Issues (chapters 6 to 8). Module 4, weeks 6 and 7 - E-Commerce in Action (chapters 9 to 12). By the end of the course we have read the entire textbook, a completion of a task that brings a real sense of accomplishment.

2. Correlated Learning Materials: We chose this textbook because it comes with numerous ancillary materials that are crucial for teaching. These materials include a test bank, that we will utilize for computer graded formative assessment (brief mastery quizzes), and open-book summative exams. The book also comes with PowerPoints from which we can make voice-over presentations (lectures) and videos (which we can digitize to show online).

3. Foundation for Project Based Learning: I've found that relying on a textbook for the core curriculum and course narrative structure gives us the freedom to develop large course projects. The trick is being willing to restrict oneself from assigning too much reading and material in addition to the textbook reading. If you are disciplined enough to stick with the textbook for the core curriculum, it becomes feasible to integrate a large course project (usually a team project), that will require the students to add value to the textbook curriculum.

I've tried designing and teaching courses without a textbook and it has never worked as well. Sure, some courses do not lend themselves well to a textbook - and sometimes pulling together the curriculum from primary documents and a range of scholarly and online sources makes sense. But in my experience, a textbook can provide a courses with a solid foundation to build active learning assignments and a collaborative and interactive learning experience.

What do you think about textbooks?


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