It's 2018. Why do we still have textbooks?
Textbooks still have a long run. Source: AFP/Dominick Reuter

Recently, US-based edtech company Cengage announced a new subscription service for college students to access more than 20,000 digital course materials. This includes eBooks, online homework and study guides, at just US$119.99 a semester or US$179.99 a year.

Michael Hansen, CEO of Cengage, the US-based education and technology company providing the subscription, said: “For too long, our industry has contributed to the lack of affordable access to higher learning. Despite years of student and faculty complaints, the industry continued to push an outdated, traditional business model that didn’t put students first.”

Hansen describes the college textbook business model as “outdated” and he’s not the only one.

The dusty tomes at your university library have survived a millennium for good reason. Source: Shutterstock

They have been described as “obsolete”, with the death of the textbook being predicted several times over, doomed to be replaced by free and open source software tools on the internet like  TED Talks, the Internet ArchiveEuropeana, the Open Courseware Consortium or the Open Learning Initiative.

And with today’s college-going generation being no strangers to digital devices, well-versed in learning things online on their own, the dusty tomes in university libraries today can seem like relics of yesterday.

But they are still around. And very much eating into precious student budgets – a new survey by Morning Consult found textbooks to cost a whopping US$579 annually – occupying the bulk of reading lists across universities worldwide.

Norm Friesen, Professor at Boise State University and author of a book titled The Textbook and the Lecture, lists five reasons why textbooks are here to stay.

As written in The Conversation, the first has to do with it being a US$11 billion dollar industry. According to NBC’s review of Bureau of Labour Statistics (BLS) data, textbook prices have increased by 1,041 percent since 1977.

“They’ve been able to keep raising prices because students are ‘captive consumers’. They have to buy whatever books they’re assigned,” said Nicole Allen, a spokeswoman for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition.

They are “captive consumers” because, to date, textbooks remain an active and interactive learning tool. Friesen wrote:

“Readers proceed at their own pace. They “customize” their books by engaging with different layers and linkages. Highlighting, Post-It notes, dog-ears and other techniques allow for further customization that students value in print books over digital forms of books.”

Thirdly, textbooks continue to be the best way to spur students to establish scientific paradigms. This means getting students “to work through problems that lie at the foundation of a scientific discipline” through “tightly integrated and meticulously organized labs and problem-questions” which are indispensable.

Then, there’s the “Art of the example”. To solidify the reader’s understanding, there are diagrams, simulations, narratives and cases which make them good educational content.

Finally, the education sector is not one easily disrupted. We use technology such as laptops and smart boards in tandem with our learning environment, which for the most part, still remain in the form of a lecture given by a person to a group of persons listening. Technology has yet to disrupt this model, including textbooks, which has been in place for a millennium

“For this reason, I’d say it’d be better to understand how textbooks have enabled knowledge to be transmitted and developed over time, rather than yet again declaring them dead or obsolete,” Friesen said.

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