Blowing up the history textbook and putting it back together again.

17 02 2012

I hate history textbooks. They’re too long. They’re usually about as bland as possible because they’re written by committee. They give the illusion that they cover everything worth knowing, then leave many important things out. They come out in new editions about the same time most professors just get used to teaching the old one. They’re expensive. They’re heavy. They don’t contain the same kind of overarching arguments that good historical scholarship does. Most professors I know assign them, yet don’t even bother to use them when actually teaching.

I also hate e-books. They’re often full of distracting links. They’re hard to read over an extended period of time. They can be revised endlessly. They can’t be resold. Even your Kindle is going to run out of space at some point if your library is as big as mine.

But what if two wrongs make a right (or at least a substantially less wrong)? I wouldn’t have considered this possible until I read this piece by Audrey Watters:

When I first talked to CEO and founder Matt McInnis in early 2011, it seemed clear to me that he recognized that textbooks are a compilation of resources, and when we talk about digitizing textbooks, we’re really missing the boat if we simply take the static content of the textbook and repackage it in an electronic format — a PDF with a few bells and whistles and maybe some video embeds. When McInnis explained the company’s vision to me, he said Inkling’s plans were to “gently disassemble the textbook, describing the process as an engineering problem not a publishing one.

Now McInnis’s company, Inkling, are the people who want to put a social network in your textbook. The last thing in the world a history textbook needs is a social network. However, the idea of disassembling the history textbook and putting it back together again might be a really excellent suggestion since the existing models are so uniformly awful.

Think about it. The physical history textbook is far too long. An electronic one offered à la carte could be only as long as you need it to be. There’s no overarching argument in the physical book, so breaking it into pieces wouldn’t destroy cohesion that didn’t exist in the first place. If the textbook had no beginning or end, there would be no pressure to make believe that it was comprehensive. Publishers want you to read in a walled garden so keeping the distracting links out shouldn’t be too hard.

I’ve actually seen really cool stuff coming from giant publishers that I would use in class. I remember one focus groups where the publisher showed us this amazing 3-D thing with historic artifacts. I told the publisher I’d use that in class, but they said I had to use their grade book, their textbook, their quizzes…the whole ball of wax. A good electronic textbook would have to be à la carte, and I don’t think our giant publishing “friends” are willing to do that. They want to sell us (and by extension to our students) everything we need to make our job easier, not better.

In fact, as I’ve explained before, the conventional textbook is primarily designed to help people who don’t know all that much about what they’re teaching, rather than those of us who do. We in the later category need tools, not services. Tools validate our work as educators. Services mean our work is being outsourced to giant corporations whether we recognize it or not.

There was this goofy thing in the Guardian the other day about whether books and the Internet had begun to merge. Here’s a piece of it:

For hundreds of years we’ve been slowly expanding the reach of human knowledge, both in terms of what we know and how many of us know it. Today we take a resource like Wikipedia for granted – but compare it with the situation of only a few decades ago, when the majority of the population had lacked easy access to such knowledge. The benefits of expanding access to knowledge, both social and economic, are incalculable.

If the history textbook moves into electronic form with the aim of out Wiki-ing Wikipedia, it’s going to lose badly because there will always be something better on the Internet available for free. However, history (as any real historian will tell you) is more than just facts. If a new kind of textbook could foster analysis rather than regurgitation, then maybe a controlled explosion might be a good thing for our field.

The rosy scenario I paint here will never stay rosy unless professors are in control of the detonator. Sure, that’s a difficult condition for most companies to meet, but isn’t there at least one ed tech entrepreneur out there who’s willing to admit that having a college degree does not make them an expert in history education?

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2 responses

17 02 2012
Jonathan Dresner

I’ve been toying with an idea in my head that I really should just leave there another semester or so, but here goes: I’m considering dispensing with the textbook in the World survey and replacing it with a list of basic terms, names, etc., that students would be responsible for researching on their own. My lectures would have to change — I do follow and riff off of the textbook with some regularity — but that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I’m not sure I want to go the ‘class wiki’ route, or how I would evaluate this, but I could, at that point, up my supplemental and primary source readings (maybe even make the switch to Milestone, as their World sources get better).

A lot of them would head straight to wikipedia, of course…. like I said, I haven’t quite figured out what I’m doing with this idea yet.

17 02 2012
Blowing Up the History Textbook and Putting it Back Together Again : Global Perspectives on Digital History

[...] is as big as mine. But what if two wrongs make a right (or at least a substantially less wrong)? Read Full Post Here   Category: books, teaching, technology, [...]

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