New Textbooks

“When I finally write my textbook, this is how I’m going to explain systems of linear equations.” Mr. DeLorenzo was always deviating from the textbook in our Algebra II class. “Forget what the book says, and listen to this.” He had a plan for just about every topic. Having taught Algebra for more than twenty years, he knew how to a explain it in a way that the students would understand. He knew where there were problems with the way the book explained certain topics. He could plant seeds as he went along, and then refer back to them when we started talking about trigonometry.

Most good teachers deviate from the textbook. Teaching is an art more than it’s a science. Knowing when to use the standard resource and when to supplement or deviate comes with experience. A few teachers choose to go it alone, and rarely use the textbook at all. “The board of education says I have to issue a textbook to each student,” reported my American History teacher on the first day of school. “Put this in the bottom of your locker, and bring it back on the last day of class.” We only covered three topics in that semester of American History. For each of them, we used only primary sources. I learned enough to place out of six hours of Western Civilization in college.

Each year, we spend a staggering amount of money on textbooks. In our district, we spend more than twice as much money on textbooks as we do on technology. It’s amazing how much we spend on old books, too. Even if you have an eight-year-old science book, when enrollment goes up, you have to buy new copies of the old book. We spend a fortune on stuff like that.

WikiBooksMore than a year ago, EducationBridges started a discussion of wiki textbooks. They were looking at collaboratively developing some wiki books that could be used by teachers and students in economically disadvantaged areas. Essentially, they’d collect all of the ideas from all of the Mr. DeLorenzos of the world, and put them together into online textbooks that could be freely used. As time goes on, these books would evolve and become progressively more complete, more accurate, and more useful.

The Wikibooks project has similar goals.  Begun in 2003, they have hundreds of textboooks on a wide variety of topics in various stages of completion. WikiJunior is a spinoff of this project aimed at creating free, engaging books for students aged 8-11. The Global Text Project has a goal of creating 1,000 free online textbooks for use in developing nations (though they currently only have two in development). Meanwhile, WikiTextBook is a British project that is also trying to collaboratively develop textbooks.

How would this look in the classroom? If you have a 1:1 program students could just read the textbooks on their laptops. But even if we didn’t buy any textbooks, we would still only save about $100 per student per year.  That’s probably not enough to buy a laptop, but it is enough to buy a PDA or an ebook reader, or the better gadget that doesn’t exist yet.

Students could certainly access the resources online from home, the school and public libraries, and other locations with Internet access. But that’s probably not enough. This might be a case where old-school printing would make sense. Printing a few wikibook chapters on disposable newsprint would be very inexpensive. Students would have an up-to-date resource. It would be a portable hard copy. The teacher could customize it, including only the information that is needed, and augmenting it with other resources as needed. A teacher might have a new issue once a month, or once every two months. And you could create them for pennies a copy.

At the moment, there are more people looking for wikibooks than writing them. A lot of the projects have made significant progress, but most are just barely getting off the ground. Interestingly, the best development is occuring in areas where we don’t currently buy textbooks. Want to learn Ruby on Rails? How about a book on formal logic? Mabye a science book that just focuses on electricity would be more useful in some situations than a full-blown physics text. If we had more teachers using these resources as supplemental materials, or as resources in classes where we don’t currently have textbooks, we might get enough momentum to start making a difference.