May 8, 2012 | by Brian Jacobs | in Commentary

Is the word "Textbook" obsolete?

Matt Greenfield posted a blog entry yesterday on the Huff Post on whether it’s appropriate to continue using the word “textbook,” now that the digital transition is upon us.

It’s interesting that the word in English is the only one (that I’m aware of, at least) that doesn’t designate the book specifically as an educational object. In French, for example, “textbook” would be translated as “manuel scolaire,” scholarly manual; in German, it’s “Lehrbuch,” teaching/instruction book (the Spanish “libro de texto” is likely a neologism derived from the contemporary English word). Perhaps the origin of the word “text” stems from the use of primary source materials (that makes sense to me) but the openness of the word may actually be helpful as we make the digital transition. Precisely because it has an etymological relation to weaving, blending together, it could be flexible enough for repurposing (as it has done so already in the digital realm, as, for example, “hypertext.”) There’s also a minimalist and direct sense of the word “text”: It’s clean and dry and unencumbered.  And regardless of the many ways in which the digital transition will play out, and despite the use of video, audio, 3D simulations, and other “learning objects,” who would deny that “text,” as the written word, is still the foundation of learning and will continue to be? “Visual learning” can be a great complement that helps reinforce concepts but there’s no substitute for grasping them at a textual level.

The form of the book, called a “codex” or “block of wood” at its origin in the first century AD, is really what’s at stake here—and likely much more so than it is for general reading and novels.  The core text in digital learning inevitably, and by design, points beyond the work’s container, its borders. That’s not been the case in the early going of general reading materials, especially novels—the content that’s propelling the growth of eBooks generally. These latter are usually self-contained, mimicking the physical book experience.

One could argue that the success of digital reading in the areas of general reading, novels, etc. and its lack of success thus far in most educational circles actually mirrors that extent to which the book form holds up in the digital medium. That is, Kindles, Nooks, and the like can offer satisfying reading experiences when the content fits neatly, and in a linear way, into a discrete package—whether that package is physical or virtual. Studying in a subject area, instead, is not usually linear and so well contained in a progressive narrative. One flips back and forth between sections, writes annotations in the margins, writes out notes elsewhere.

In this sense, the textbook might be the foundation but it is always physically interactive for the student; the trick, which no one has yet shown successfully, is to create a new kind of immersive experience that isn’t merely as good as physical interactivity but actually better for learning outcomes (otherwise, why bother?). And when that emerges, which is likely but not immediate, we will indeed need to dispense with that odd construction, the textbook.

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