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Textbooks -Retreat, Renaissance, or Revolution?

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The posting below provides some interesting facts while also raising some important issues regarding student and faculty use of textbooks. It is written by Steven W. Gilbert, president The TLT Group a Non-Profit Organization The Teaching, Learning, an d Technology Affiliate of AAHE. It is from his excellent Mailing Liste, more information about which appears at the end of his message. 


Rick Reis 

------------------------ 996 words ------------------------ 

Textbooks -Retreat, Renaissance, or Revolution? 

By Steven Gilbert 

An article in yesterday's (May 26, 1998) NY Times provoked the questions and comments below. I'd like your help in understanding emerging trends in textbook and college publishing, the future of the textbook, and the implications for educational uses of information technology.) - Steve Gilbert 


Is there really a revolution in the educational uses of information technology? Does the growing use of technology replace, supplement, or increase the use of textbooks and other print media? How can the textbook and college publishing industry be fl ourishing when so many more students are refusing to buy or keep books? Is the future for textbooks published in English rosiest on other continents? 

Do the traditional publishers know where they are going? Does anyone? 

Yesterday's New York Times ran a front-page article by Doreen Carvajal, "Sales of Textbooks Continuing to Defy Gloomy Predictions" triggered by the announcement that "Last weekend the British media conglomerate Pearson P.L. C. agreed to buy Simon & Schuster's education division of publishing imprints, boasting about the future of textbooks and education as the 'great growth industry of our time' and instantly becoming the industry behemoth." Later in the article, Patric k J. Quinn, managing editor of the education group for Simba Information Inc., a market research firm, is quoted: "In the late 1980's and early 1990's much of the talk about education centered on the emerging technologies -- that the book was dead and tr aditional publishing was out. ...And now, through all the hype and hoopla about it, textbooks have actually started to sell at a brisker pace." 

Explaining consolidation in the textbook publishing industry during the early 1990s, Carvajal reports: "...major publishers started to merge to compete. College publishers sought to increase their share of the market by d eveloping an expensive array of free perks packaged with textbooks that included graphics, computer disks, transparencies, videos and even jokes for the first day of class. In some cases, the textbook packages included up to 100 different elements, drivi ng up the price of psychology or science books to as much as $100. Textbooks also became weightier with the addition of graphics that expanded the number of pages in a biology book from 400 several decades ago to more than 1,000 today." 

This article doesn't mention two important trends and makes me wonder if I've been misinterpreting or misrepresenting them. 

First, I've been told by faculty members and publishers that the increases in textbook size and price result in part from increases in knowledge and improvements in pedagogical design. The range of information considered important to be included in a certain level of biology course has grown significantly. The likelihood of a vast majority of faculty members within a discipline agreeing on a single small set of topics for a widely taught course has decreased. In order to satisfy most faculty, the te xtbook must include a wider range of topics. In addition, during recent decades publishers have learned how to integrate graphic design and other instructional devices more effectively into books; but more pages and printing expense are required to do s o. 

More intriguing, I continue to hear from bookstore managers and publishers about the dramatic rise in the percent of students who do not purchase textbooks (new or used) in courses where they are required. I've heard that this percent went from less than 5 to more than 30 during the past five years. When I mention this to faculty members, I am often greeted with exclamations of relief. Many faculty members have assumed that this trend was a local problem reflecting some shortcoming in their own teaching or a change in the composition of their own student body. There are many important exceptions to this trend: upper class departmental majors buy books; textbooks that are also recognized as key reference works in their fields are purchased; wealthier students buy more books; etc.. However, I rarely hear faculty claim that the pattern doesn't exist. 

Some faculty explain the pattern as a result of students' growing aversion to reading. Some students explain the pattern as a result of tests and exams that focus primarily on material covered in class. 

Many colleagues of my vintage (age 40 and above) still own most of their college books -- textbooks and others. We keep many of those books carefully packed in cardboard cartons and move them from house to house without ever opening the cartons. We a lso display in our homes and offices shelves full of books from our undergraduate and graduate days -- books that we haven't touched in decades. We unquestioningly purchased every one of those books that any professor ever required, and now we passionate ly resist any suggestion that we abandon them. 

By contrast, if current students do buy textbooks, it is often with the understanding that they will be sold back to the bookstore within a few days or weeks of the end of the course -- possibly before the end of the course . Many of our children find ways of sharing or altogether avoiding the books "required" for their courses. Many modern students have no idea of assembling a personal library. 

Do the patterns described above apply much differently in other countries? Is the international regard for U. S. higher education the basis for a growing market for even the more traditional textbooks and college reading m aterials published in English? 

What do you think about the recent consolidation and optimism of textbook publishers? What might the emerging role of technology really be? What are publishers doing with and on the Web? How can accounting and financial budgeting practices of publishers permit them to take seriously the technology components "included" in textbook packages? 

What is the future of the textbook? (More varied options available to more varied teachers and learners? Different versions for "distant" students vs. classroom students? How will new knowledge of various learning abiliti es and styles influence textbook design and options? Various teaching abilities and styles? "Globalization" of higher education?) 


Information below last updated: 2/8/98 

Steven W. Gilbert, President 

THE TLT GROUP -- a Non-Profit Organization 

The Teaching, Learning, and Technology Affiliate of AAHE 

202/293-6440 X 5, FAX: 202/467-6593 


One Dupont Circle, Suite 360, Washington, DC 20036 USA SCHEDULE FOR TLTR WORKSHOPS AVAILABLE FROM AMANDA ANTICO 202 293 6440 EXT 38 ANTICO@TLTGROUP.ORG Order TLTR Workbook at Special AAHESGIT Reader Rate: Call 202/293-6440 x 11 and give code "SGIT 5/98 " 

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- Copyright 1998 Steven W. Gilbert