There was a time when the Gutenberg printing press was high technology, and it’s products, printed books, were coveted by the erudite. Until then, humans over millennia had passed on knowledge through oral traditions, on tablets, palm leaves, stone pillars, animal hide, metallic plates, paintings on cave walls, etc.
By Jost Amman – Meggs, Philip B. A History of Graphic Design. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1998. (p 64), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2777036
Why are we talking textbooks? Subjects are changing and how they are introduced to students is also changing. Textbooks have been the bedrock of the modern education system, and now there seems to be major rumblings of change. E.g. Fundamentals of Information Science still teaches the student how to go about solving problems in the real world. This information might be delivered as a textbook or a digital download or as an audio file. Students who were curious about philosophy might today want to know about the intersection of philosophy and information science. Will textbooks and therefore education become a thing of the past? Let’s understand better.
Textbooks as we know them in the modern world
In the last 4-5 centuries, compulsory education for the young has been introduced across the world. As the Gutenberg press made mass publishing of books possible and affordable, primers and readers for standard education were introduced. Once structured higher education came into being and became affordable, more students opted for it. The market grew to encompass more specialized textbooks for the subjects taught.
Did the ancient world have textbooks?
YES, they had!
Ancient civilizations which emphasized knowledge flourished for centuries. With their people traveling far and wide, cross pollination of knowledge sparked creativity. There was a time when written copies of educational texts were few and information was disseminated orally.
Many of the written works of the ancient world were generally in the care of a few. Libraries were frequently storehouses of ancient educational texts and many were almost works of art; with the calligraphy and painting inside.
Any change in how knowledge is passed on, always has people worried. When writing became commonplace in ancient Greece, the emphasis on memorization decreased, with Socrates fearing a weakening in the Greeks’ mental capacity to memorize and retell. By the way, we know this because Plato his student wrote about it in the Dialogues!
Student burden in the modern world
Education has always been a privilege for the elite few. This is probably the first time in modern history that so many people are opting for higher education all over the world. Ironically it is a period of falling enrollments for the seventh year in a row in the US. The reasons are varied, but one of the biggest deterrents is the cost.
One significant component of this expense is textbooks. College Board estimates $1200 for textbooks in the average college budget in 2018-19. Students frequently buy textbooks out of money earmarked for boarding and they have also been known to go hungry to afford textbooks.
All textbooks are not very pricey but STEM books are more expensive than others; content creators say it’s more expensive to put together. An analysis commissioned by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, summarized the problem and made recommendations to cope with the problem.
Is tech shaking up things again
There are solutions to this problem. Students buy second hand books or they share and rent books. Alternatively, they might borrow a copy from the library.
Tech is shaking up things in more ways than one. Here are a few:
- Online courses and etextbooks have made massive inroads into college education. The prices of etextbooks is falling fast.
- Open Educational Resources are available with open license textbooks.
- Supplemental help with subscription based textbook solutions and Q&A is available at affordable prices.
- Textbook publishers are bundling supplemental material and access to electronic platforms for online testing and homework submissions, via access codes. This is pricey, but students get their submissions reviewed immediately, have access to video material and TAs are freed up to help students.
- Libraries and their custodians are now negotiating affordable textbook availability, both physical and electronic, with the suppliers, thereby holding onto their traditional position of being a hub for knowledge.
Although the textbook business is in a flux it is agilely morphing to stay relevant.
Tech in the form of the printing press birthed this industry and now tech might be the one which reshapes it to serve its primary purpose – helping the student acquire knowledge.
Let’s wait and watch.