Are textbooks on the way out?

Nuvola apps bookcaseOne of my many jobs is that I am the academic library rep for the Department. In this capacity I attended a meeting on Friday with the person in the University’s library who is in charge of Physics, and two sales representatives from one of the big publishers in scientific publishing. The reps were nice people and it was interesting to see what they had to say but mostly what they had to say was about different models for paying for their online content. It was a bit of a shame that it was all about how they could charge us money for various packages, and almost nothing about how new technology could make for a better learning experience for our students.

They are a commercial company and exist to make money. That is fair enough. But I did say to them that if they could not provide better content than Wikipedia, and make it easy for all at the University to access it, we probably should not be giving them (taxpayers’ and students’) money.

I am currently teaching a computational modelling course at the moment, and here there are around 20 projects – each student picks one to work on. Projects etc here if you interested. Almost all have background reading that I try to insist the students read – and a large majority do.

Some of this background reading is the form of textbooks, for example, those working on modelling the internal structure of stars read The Physics of Stars by Phillips. I really like this book. But I direct those who work on modelling traffic jams to the Wikipedia page of a simple model. When I compiled the list of background reading I just picked the best I could find, not really caring whether it was a real book, printed on real paper, or webpages.

Twenty years ago all the background reading may have been textbooks, so for this course at least textbooks are being squeezed. If commercial publishers don’t spend at least as much effort into making their online versions of books good learning experiences as they do into developing ways of charging for them, then the squeeze could get worse.

They may also squeezed from the other side too. Very occasionally at a conference a publisher rep will ask if I have thought of writing a book. I always say no, I have no time. But I have found some time to edit a Wikipedia page or two – as that is a much smaller commitment. A Wikipedia page may also reach many more people than an expensive book that few will want to pay for. I think academics don’t write books for the (very modest sums of) money they get from them, they write them for the same reason they write Wikipedia pages, to help inform people, and so will want to write something that will be read.

So, only time will tell, but I think that at the very least textbooks will have to evolve to survive.