Here’s a phenomenon I hope doesn’t catch on: I recently talked in an airport departure lounge with a student (studying at another university) who told me that his entire knowledge for the forthcoming exams came from mobile phone texts that his girlfriend, who was apparently a more conscientious attender of classes, had sent him summarising the syllabus. He had attended no lectures or tutorials. He had read no books. He had her texts. I hope, really hope, that he was pulling my leg, but I fear he wasn’t. He had, it seemed, the ultimate ‘textbook’, and he was quite confident that he could pass. I never even got to asking him how he had handled essays and assignments, that question occurred to me too late.
But the extreme nature of this particular study technique perhaps illustrates a broader issue. The conventional textbook sold for an outrageous price by a small band of publishers is, one hopes, on the way out. The internet in particular is undermining their business model, and we’ll be none the worse for that. In one interesting development, an American community college now runs a course that uses only open source material, and the students therefore do not need to buy anything. The college calculates that this saves each student $2,000 per annum.
For many lecturers the textbook was a comforting prop, providing them with course materials that needed no assembling. For students, such books were often profoundly anti-intellectual, suggesting to them (even where that was not the authors’ intention) that there is a ‘correct’ answer to every question, even highly theoretical ones. However, it is important that what replaces them is not just smartly digital, but is also part of a genuine introduction to real scholarship. I suspect that the post-textbook course materials handed out or made available on online learning platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle are often unimaginative and as prescriptive as the old textbooks – though of course there are also many examples of genuinely good practice.
New technology has freed the universities and colleges from the clutches of publishing cartels. But that must lead to something more profound than a narrow range of online materials; or your girlfriend’s mobile phone texts.