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Educon: Unraveling the Textbook

It’s been a week since returning from Educon1 and, although I have managed to read a few of the wonderful reflections written by others, I’m just now sifting through my notes and thoughts about the sixth edition of this remarkable event.

One session that won’t get out of my head was the Unraveling the Textbook2 discussion lead by John Pederson and Diana Laufenberg. Our starting point was the premise that access to information has changed radically in the past couple of decades but the  textbooks used by most students have not.

It’s a topic I’ve reflected on and ranted about in this space and it was great to hear from a variety of perspectives, both about why the current model is broken and how the format needs to change. But we, of course, didn’t find any solutions in only 90 minutes.

However, the comments of one teacher in the group more than halfway through the discussion stood out as both contrary to the prevailing thoughts and as a good reminder of how most of us in the room were a little bit ahead of our colleagues.

She observed, in effect, that everyone wanted to take away textbooks without having anything ready to replace them. It’s a good point and one that would probably be echoed by a majority of teachers. As we’ve experimented with online textbooks in our district, I know many in the schools would rather just have the paper versions back.3

One random idea I tossed out to begin to address that issue was to abandon the term “textbook” altogether. It carries too much baggage with most people and is too often used to define the curriculum for a particular course of study.

So, what do we replace it with? Towards the end of our short session, I wrote down some ideas that I will need to explore and expand on:

A replacement for the textbook should

  • be accessible on any device, anywhere
  • allow users to add comments
  • allow certain users (teachers, trusted students) to add and update materials
  • have a social media component to allow users to discuss the materials
  • have content controlled by educators, not publishers

Nothing particularly revolutionary, just some random thoughts. The whole topic needs the collective efforts of many smart educators like the ones who shared in our discussion at Educon.

1 Really? Where the hell did this week go??

2 Don’t bother clicking on the link for the recording on that page. For one thing the sound didn’t work. But beyond that, most Educon sessions are conversations, not presentations, and capturing those interactions on video are difficult at best.

3 Our math teachers will get that wish as our school board got tired of hearing from complaining parents and voted to buy regular books to “supplement” the online versions.


  1. Bill Fitzgerald

    Interesting timing – we were literally, just now, right this second, talking about the idea that people want to eliminate the textbook, but don’t know what to use next/instead.

    In some of the conversations we have been having, the textbook gets blamed for the excesses and wrongs perpetrated by the industry that produces textbook. I am actually looking at a draft post on that exact topic in another window.

    Also, re your vision of what the next “thing” could be, we are also in the process of building out something that hits those features. Teacher and learner ownership of information (and the processes by which information gets created and shared) is essential.

    Fun times ahead.

  2. Tim

    Thanks for the comment, Bill. I hope that many other educators will consider how the textbook needs to change, although from what I’ve heard from publishers, they really don’t want to release their control over the content, no matter the format. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the issue.

  3. Dan Meyer

    Nice list of five up there, Tim. In my own brainstorming sessions, I find it useful to think about future textbooks less as a collection of content and more as a collection of experiences, of which content (annotating it, sharing it, creating it) is just one part. That’s been productive for me.

  4. John Mayer, Executive Director

    CALI’s eLangdell Press for law schools embraces all of the elements you list.

    – our ebooks are available in multiple formats for almost any device, PC or smartphone AND as a website (soon)
    – the website will be based on Pressbooks/Wordpress so will allow users to add comments
    – We are working on teachad and student editing/remixing as welll
    – We are the “publisher”, but we distribute via a Creative Commons license so that educators can remix our materials. We pay law faculty to write these books and then give them away to serve the educational goals and not publisher profit.

    The syllabus=TOC=Course materials=website=textbook – details matter, but are malleable by BOTH the instructor in the construction of the learning environment AND the student as they too are constructing their learning.

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