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Do Textbooks Still Matter?

Do Textbooks Still Matter?

I studied engineering at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, in the 90s. At the end of term, as final exams approached, a small group of my classmates and I would band together to figure out what we had to do to pass, or ace, a certain class. We’d set a meeting place—often Theological Hall (built in 1879), which was empty of students for the exam period—and camp in a vacant classroom for the day.

We’d take out our textbooks, notes, and old exams, and help each other figure out how to answer the questions we thought we’d have to answer in the exam hall. We’d alternate between scribbling answers, writing on the chalk board, talking, and referring to the textbook to try to understand those tricky parts.

Things are, I suspect, a little bit different now. No one I knew in university had a smart phone. In fact, no one had a cell phone. No one had Snapchat. No one had an Internet connection at home; you had to go to the library to surf the Web, which was invented the year after I started university. I suspect things are different now.

But, in the end, I suspect things are also very much the same.

The process of learning

To understand Thermodynamics, you still need to know how to calculate the net power and thermal efficiency of a Rankine power cycle. To be able to speak sensibly about History, you might need to know who succeeded Julius Caesar, or how to explain the political forces that lead to the Boston Tea Party, or the 1837 Guerre des patriotes in Lower Canada.

These things do not change. Mastery of a subject looks the same now as it did in 1916, or 1816. To master knowledge, we need to learn things—facts, methods, approaches—and how and when to put these things together.

And we don’t learn any of this from thin air.

That information has to exist somewhere. It has to be transmitted to us somehow. And, more importantly, we have to work with that information to absorb it, to master it. To be able to talk about and write about it. To learn it, to know it, to be able to use it.

What is a book?

I’ve worked for a decade on the space between books and the web: with audio, ebooks, print and webbooks. A few years ago I took a stab at a format-agnostic definition I use when trying to figure out what all this different kinds of books share:

“A book is a discrete collection of text (and other media), that is designed by an author(s) as an internally complete representation of an idea, or set of ideas; emotion or set of emotions; and transmitted to readers in various formats.”

This boundedness has a kind of power and value in how we interact with, and think about books.

It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I’ve come up with so far.

The key ingredient here is not the pages or the spine, but a sense of intentional boundedness.

A sense that a book is a bounded, discrete object, whatever its format. And this boundedness has a kind of power and value in how we interact with, and think about books.

Books are a kind of promise from an author to a reader:

“This is what I think you need to know about this subject, and here is what I think is the best way to work your way through all this knowledge.”

How will we learn in the future?

We live in a time of Massive Open Online Courses. They will get better. Some people might learn better by listening, or watching videos of the best lecturer in the world on a given subject. Virtual Reality teaching is surely just around the corner, with pedagogic power we cannot yet imagine. Interactive 3D models and AI-driven educational chatbots will surely be guiding our studies before many years are out.

But underneath each of these innovations, there needs to be a kind of a map, there needs someone to say: here is what needs to be known, here are the things that need to be learned. And a “book” is still the most efficient way to record and transmit this information.

Books may not be the interface of the future; they will remain the operating system

Books, and textbooks are still at the core of our intellectual lives. Textbooks are the documentation of human knowledge, an encoded record of ‘all the things we believe someone should learn about a topic.’ They are in some sense the operating system for society, and even if we start to build better and more effective mechanisms to transmit the contents of books and textbooks, we still need, and always will need, a written record of “that which should be known.”

And, whether students are calling up pages and examples projected on implants in their eyeballs, or marked up dead trees, I guess that in 50 years there will still be groups of students getting together at Theological Hall in Kingston, helping each other figure out how to master what they need to know. And underneath that learning, somewhere, will be a book.

Header image by Daniella Winkler on Unsplash.


Hugh McGuire

Hugh McGuire has been working with books and the web for a decade. Most recently he is the co-founder of Reb.us, which helps faculty publish Open Textbooks. He's also the founder of Pressbooks.com, LibriVox.org, and co-editor of "Book: A Futurist's Manifesto." He lives in Montreal.