Op-Ed: Textbooks are obsolete. Get over it.

Recently, in their annual letter where Bill and Melinda Gates reflect on the things that they (and their billions of dollars in charitable donations) think are worth thinking about, the worlds most philanthropic couple stated that “textbooks are becoming obsolete.”

Gates went on to say: “But now, thanks to software, the standalone textbook is becoming a thing of the past. Suppose you’re taking high school algebra. Instead of just reading a chapter on solving equations, you can look at the text online, watch a super-engaging video that shows you how it’s done, and play a game that reinforces the concepts. Then you solve a few problems online, and the software creates new quiz questions to zero in on the ideas you’re not quite getting.”

Those of us that have been watching closely over the years collectively said “Amen and good riddance to bad trash.” Traditional textbooks, like those first written by the Greeks and then mass produced by Gutenberg six centuries ago, have changed little in either form or substance over the years.

Since their inception, traditional textbooks have had a number of issues including, but not limited to:

  • Assuming all students learn at the same rate
  • Assuming all student read at the level of the text
  • Are instantly out of date as soon as they are published
  • Schools are stuck with them for years, or even decades depending on funding
  • Are 100% one way communication tools with no interaction allowed by the user
  • Are overpriced
  • Are overweight

And those are just for starters. Fact of the matter is, the textbook has not changed with the times. In years past, perhaps when you were in school, the teacher would use the textbook as the main source of information for the course.

Classes would dutifully march through the books form Chapter One on the first week of school all the way to Chapter 36 by the end of school (If you were lucky. Classes often never made it to the end of the book, where the “fluff material” was usually relegated.)

Gates rightfully points out that digital tools have transformed how information is obtained, shared and taught. Textbooks, alas, have been left in the dustbin of disruption and can no longer justify their high prices.

The big-time textbook publishers have known for years that the internet has changed the game on how information is delivered and updated. In a recent “textbook adoption” a school district teacher noted to me that one of the “new adoptions” was almost a word-for-word the same as the previous adoption seven years earlier. The only difference was packaging.

It seems even the textbook publishers are starting to see the writing on the digital wall. The internet is where information is now housed, not in cumbersome textbooks that are designed more to strengthen lower back muscles than brain cells.

To be fair, some textbook publishers have started to migrate to digital content in an effort to stay relevant, but many are now so late to the digital content game that they are are trying to play catchup to a world moving faster than they can adapt their business models to. Indeed, instead of lowering prices and adding features, most textbook publishers simply repackaged existing material and charged more.

When Apple faced a similar particular economic crisis, Steve Jobs famously said “ Apple will innovate our way out of this.” What came next was the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Devices that changed history.

Textbook publishers apparently never heard of Steve Jobs. Their motto: We will raise our prices and hope the suckers will pay. It has worked for 600 years, why stop now?

Young, disruptive companies and services are taking a bite out of the publisher’s formerly undisputed monopoly, often offering the same content the traditional textbooks offer but for free.

Take for instance the CK12.org online Flexbooks 2.0: These modern digital textbooks can be modified at will, on the fly, by any teacher, contain visually stunning interactive tools, include assessments that are designed to teach as well as assess, and can be personalized for the individual learner, even adopting to the language of the learner.

Want a Spanish version of their Physics books? Click here and “Viola!” A Spanish version. Oh, and all of that is free, as are college level and Advanced Placement approved OpenStax textbooks from Rice University. Why would any school district pay for something that they can get for free?

Publishing companies are having a hard time competing with free, and are reduced to taking teachers to semi questionable “trainings” which provide info about their books and smoozy dinners to convince them to adopt their books. “Hey, our entire business model is about 20 years out of date, but our burgers are yummy!”).

Consider the “Big History Project” which is partially funded by the Gates Foundation: This 100% online History of the World course is a 100% free, online social studies course for middle- and high-school students. It is engaging. Visually stunning. Understandable. Oh, and did I mention 100% free. And you wish you had that as your history course in school.

Again, consider the history courses you took in school and compare them to The Big History Project. You only wish your World History course was that cool.

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Free can no longer be associated with low quality or second hand. Free services and information are transforming how students learn and how teachers teach.

If your child is still learning only from a textbook, you need to march to the school and demand to know what century they expect their students to live in.

If they say they cant afford “all that fancy new stuff,” tell them that free, online resources are as good, if not better than what most publishers are offering now.

And they can afford free.


Author: Tim Holt is an educator and writer, with over 33 years experience in education and opines on education-related topics here and on his own award-winning blog: HoltThink. He values your feedback.

Feel free to leave a comment.  Read his previous columns here.