Crossposted to Teaching Thursday.
A recent short notice in the Chronicle of Higher Education asked the question: "As Textbooks Go Digital, Will Professors Build Their Own Books?". The short article goes on the discuss the various a la carte options offered by traditional textbook publishes that allow a faculty member to create unique combinations of material in an online textbook. Such a modular approach to textbook content is not new, of course. In fact, I wrote a module on the "Historical Jesus" for a modular textbook and source reader called Exploring the European Past coordinated by Ohio State and published by Thompson almost 10 years ago.
The more interesting idea from the short Chronicle note is the idea that textbook publishers could become distributors of a wide range of content for increasingly customizable course packets. In short, textbook publishers could become more like iTunes which produces almost no content, but provides an easy interface to access content produced by others.
With the growing amount of content available on the web, a central hub for certain kinds of content would certainly make the creating of custom textbooks easier, but, many of us, I expect, have already taken the plunge into both aggregating content from across the web for our textbook, as well as creating on own content. In other words, the model has probably begun to shift aware from the usefulness of the textbook as a single, authoritative entity and toward a far more fragmented, user-generated, and maybe less profit driven "marketplace" for course content.
For example, instead of a formal textbook, my rather low-tech History 101: Western Civilization I class combines podcast lectures with a short, inexpensive monograph, and a gaggle of historical documents available in the public domain. For maps, I created a bunch of "places" that students can view in Google Earth. For basic reference material, I provide comprehensive indexes with links to useful website or to Wikipedia. In the end, I have created a custom textbook for free.
Other contributors here to Teaching Thursday have taken some of these basic techniques even further by integrating custom made interviews, student generated content, and other techniques to produce sophisticated and dynamic bodies of content. With more and more content becoming available online, it is not difficult at all to imagine a custom textbook that draws exclusively from free material without sacrificing content, scope, or authority. Perhaps this is more the case in a discipline like history where a blurry line has always existed between high-quality, professional, specialized content and content generated for a popular audience, but I could imagine it being the case for other disciplines as well.
What makes this scenario so compelling is that textbooks are becoming increasingly expensive. Moreover, most textbooks are pretty mediocre in terms of content coverage, readability, and even accuracy. One of my longstanding justifications for using Wikipedia entries in place of a traditional textbook is that they are no less accurate than collectively produced textbooks where little errors tend to creep in between editors and authors and unlike Wikipedia they can't be easily fixed, on the fly, by a critical reader. At the same time, the pervasive (if somewhat shallow) criticism of Wikipedia creates an environment where students are prone to read entries critically and recognize the contested nature of even basic "facts". And the increasingly robust online teaching tools make it easy to incorporate into the classroom a dynamic and growing body of good quality online video, audio, and massive quantity of public domain documents, works of literature, and data.
All this being said, there is a convenience factor with textbooks that may for the short-term outweigh its flaws. But what do you think? Are the days of textbooks numbered?