The Textbook’s Crumbling Monopoly

Disassembling a staid tradition to acquire dynamic knowledge in real-time.

GUEST COLUMN | by Shaunak Roy

CREDIT Yellowdig image2Not long ago, at the university level, the textbook was king. It facilitated the educational experience both in and out of the classroom. It complemented lecture and discussion. It served as the primary source of knowledge acquisition. The textbook was, in a word, essential.

But that is no longer the case today. The textbook’s monopoly on knowledge is crumbling (if it hasn’t already). Scan any university campus or peek in on any dorm room and you will see fewer books. Why? Well aside from the astronomically inflated cost of textbooks at campus

That sort of autonomy and responsibility creates within the student a radically different perspective on education: it starts to feel a lot less like work and a lot more like exploration.

bookstores, the model in which students acquire knowledge is diversifying. There is no singular source anymore. Course instructors are championing the idea of hooking up lots of hoses to deliver a variety of sources. Blogs. Quora threads. Wikis. Videos. Podcasts. Digital periodicals. Articles. The list of “new” sources is growing every day—and it even includes the digitized versions of the good ol’ textbook. The general idea here is that knowledge is fluid; it doesn’t exist in a single artifact. Across all disciplines, it is developing daily.

For example, an economics textbook from 2010 likely doesn’t address the rapidly expanding on-demand personal transportation economy and its players like Uber and Lyft. Similarly, the most current mass media communications textbook probably has little, if anything, to say about the rise of Tumblr or Medium as publishing platforms. By disassembling the textbook’s  knowledge source monopoly, knowledge acquisition becomes more real-time. It becomes more relevant, current and relatable. It becomes experiential. And it happens in digital space with which today’s student is extremely comfortable, if not the norm.

But there are still challenges to face. As the opportunity for other knowledge sources to join the mix grows, quality and validity must be prioritized. The beauty of a textbook was that it had been vetted. For any given college-level textbook, numerous experts agreed that the content it contained was accurate, appropriate and contributive towards the student’s education. Said differently, the content in a textbook was curated by people who had dedicated their entire professional careers to it. How does that happen with a podcast? Or a blog post? Or a series of tweets?

Who—or what—is making sure that the content from these sources is legit? How is it being curated? And how does curation become standardized across all courses?

The answer may, in fact, be the same but better. Assuming the ultimate gatekeeper for a textbook (aka, the knowledge source) was the course instructor, part of that responsibility remains in the multiple sources world. It is to any instructor’s benefit to weave multiple sources of knowledge into the educational experience they are delivering. As such, they are responsible for validating those sources. They are the curator. But an openness to multiple knowledge sources also requires an openness to multiple providers, namely students.

The textbook’s fall from total domination allows students to become more active participants, co-curators. They can offer up a blog post they read that nudged them to think differently about a particular discussion topic. They can share a podcast that explores a whole new direction of a subject. That sort of autonomy and responsibility creates within the student a radically different perspective on education: it starts to feel a lot less like work and a lot more like exploration.

Do the sources that a student brings to the table require validity testing? Of course. In the same way that an instructor would question source material referred to in a paper, they will be charged with determining the validity of a source, its material and its correlation to the course objectives. Technologies that can facilitate this aggregation will prove useful in maintaining source integrity. Imagine a digital space in which students of a class are able to co-curate course-related material from a variety of sources in a variety of formats. Not only does the admin-esque instructor oversee what’s coming from where, but students too are able to validate communally. Question the source of a blog post shared by your classmate? Comment and explain your position. Learn what others think.

The co-curation of a variety of knowledge sources sounds wonderful, but without context and technical integration in relation to a university’s existing systems, it will fall short. There are upstart platforms in the space aiming to solve this. Not only do they facilitate co-curation, but they also align standard learning management systems, comply with educational record regulations and produce consistent, uniform data and analytics that pose a massive pedagogical opportunity to improve discourse and the student-faculty experience.

An integrated digital hub that complements the in-class experience in a co-curated way may be just what the democratization of knowledge sources needs. Doing so would provide standardization, embolden student participation and collaboration and, ultimately, supercharge the educational experience for everyone involved—all without putting the textbook fully out to pasture.

Shaunak Roy is founder and CEO of Yellowdig, a digital platform for active, perpetual learning allowing collaborative and immersive learning to happen. Write to:

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