Why Do Colleges Need A Law For Free Digital Textbooks When We Have The Internet?

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A new California law funding the replacement of expensive college textbooks with free digital versions is being hailed as a “big step forward” in the press. California, whose massive university system was influential enough to change the SAT for the entire country, will now fund an inter-university council to produce 50 freely available digital textbooks for common lower division courses–perhaps spelling the end of college textbooks.

Yet, it seems silly that after a decade with near universal access to the sum of all human knowledge, we should be confined to textbooks at all. Textbooks are a disastrously bad way to learn: they assume humans learn through memorizing giant blocks of content; that all students learn at the same chapter-by-chapter speed; and textbooks don’t lend themselves to exploratory learning. Having co-designed and taught a course at the University of California, Irvine, where Internet research replaced the textbook, I know that collaborative, project-based learning can work. But a deeper look at the kooky system of higher education reveals why students are still tethered to textbooks.

1. Learning Is Not A Priority

Colleges aren’t punished when students don’t learn. According Academically Adrift, after 4 years of instruction, most students show little mastery of critical thinking or communication, as measured by the ability to read a newspaper and form an opinion. In part, this is because professors get paid to research, not teach. “There’s a huge incentive set up in the system [for] asking students very little, grading them easily, entertaining them, and your course evaluations will be high,” admitted co-author Richard Arum. Indeed, 35 percent of students reported studying fewer than five hours a week. Colleges get the same amount of funding, regardless of how little students learn.

Textbooks are a devious, implicit agreement between students and teachers that give the impression of learning: students stare at the pages while professors get to recycle old lectures based on the textbook during their weekly hour of “teaching.”

While surveys find that most professors agree that lecture-based learning is vastly inferior, every attempt at actually changing this meets the “realities of the research universities’ continuing emphases on research productivity.”

2. High School Students Aren’t Prepared For Critical Thinking

“I like the idea of thinking critically, but I’m really good at regurgitating information,” a student once admitted to me, in a Psychology class I designed at the University of California, where students would use academic research to come up with policy prescriptions. To be honest, the initial trial of a textbook-less class was too overwhelming: students didn’t have basic comprehension of the scientific method or the ability to identify an argument. In other words, students didn’t have the requisite knowledge to effectively use Internet research, and needed the hand-holding guidance of a dumb-downed textbook.

Eventually, we taught students how to understand Internet research, but as per #1, most professors have neither the time nor patience for the kinds of remedial training that should be done in high school.

In conclusion, California textbooks are a nice feature and will save college students some much-needed cash, especially during the formative years when they are most susceptible to dropping out. But, don’t be tempted into believing that digital textbooks are a win for education, the economy, or democracy.

[Image Credit: Flickr user Johan Larsson]