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Mar. 9 2010 - 9:55 pm | 142 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

Should college professors be allowed to digitally rewrite textbooks?

Most people have spent at least some time in a college classroom, which means they likely have spent $80 or $100 on a giant textbook that was a pain to lug around. The ubiquity of laptops and reading devices like Kindle, however, has led to an increase in digital textbooks, which can be much more convenient for students. Professors may benefit from this new arrangement as well. A recent New York Times story revealed that

Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers of trade books and textbooks, is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes. Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations or illustrations.”

I was pretty excited about this new technology…until I read the last eight words of that paragraph. I realize that many textbooks are terribly dull and may not convey the material in a way that makes sense to a specific course or professor. However, I think it’s antithetical to the mission of higher education for students to read a textbook that allegedly was written by someone else but has been edited by their professor. This isn’t to say that professors don’t have the right to their particular perspective on different subjects, but there’s a big difference between reading a book or article that was authored by your professor and reading a textbook that was digitally altered without you knowing it. In the first case, it is clear that the speaker in class and the author of the text is the same. In the second case, it is unclear. This is a problem because a student may believe that a perspective/belief that a professor espouses in class also is supported by other experts in the field, giving more credence to that perspective/belief when it may not be warranted.

I’m getting ahead of myself, of course. This technology is just being released, and we don’t know how professors will use it. But it would be wise for colleges and universities to set some guidelines as to how software like this can be used. For example, if professors choose to edit or delete entire sentences or paragraphs, students should be alerted and given the opportunity to read the original text. Professors also should be required to briefly explain, in writing, why specific changes to the text were made. A professor explaining why she disagrees with another expert in her field can be a much more powerful experience for an 18-year-old than simply seeing the professor’s view in print. It allows the student to see that, in almost every area of knowledge, disagreements exist about what constitutes truth and how knowledge should be presented to others. This type of dialogue around differences of opinion could actually enhance the intellectual life of postsecondary institutions.

Too often, reactionary rules and regulations are thrown together after an attention-getting incident occurs. I can already see the look of disdain on Keith Olbermann’s face as he reports that a conservative professor edited paragraphs about evolution in order to promote creationism. And I can hear Sean Hannity getting angrier and angrier (and likely using the word “tyranny” 17 times) as he comments on a liberal professor editing an American history textbook to give it more of a populist tilt. Hopefully the smart folks who run our institutions of higher learning will get out in front of this one and regulate from day one–with input from their faculties instead of the talking heads on two particularly annoying cable news networks–the digital customization of textbooks.


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  1. collapse expand

    Have to agree that the editing would not work as this could cause all sorts of problems from getting intellectually ripped off (the student) to less competition in the text book market, not to mention everyone has an experience with a tenured “nut”. I did an economics paper on this, with texts going for hundreds a pop now, why not have the bookstore sell a laptop or e-reader and upload the books? That may save the gov. plenty too with financial aid as text book cost is a real problem.

  2. collapse expand

    I don’t see how this isn’t a copyright violation, to modify a the text of a book in any way. The real benefit may be in making it far easier to combine multiple chapters into a single text, and to allocate compensation among the various authors. What if authors were only paid when their submitted chapter was actually read?

    Annotating the textbook would be cool though. Even better would be shared annotations- what if the entire class could share their notes scribbled in the virtual margins? This would also be outstanding feedback for the publisher and author.

  3. collapse expand

    On the one hand, yeah- I can see all sorts of ways in which e-textbook technology could cause problems. On the other hand, easily editable e-textbooks could nulify the influence of creationists in Texas over high school texts in Wisconsin- each state could customize it’s textbooks to it’s own cultural standards.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.