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In my opinion

In defence of the university textbook

Ed-tech companies aim to be providers of educational content, but it’s hard to believe they are as concerned about academic quality as long-established educational publishers have been.

BY ANDREW SANCTON | SEP 23 2020

I am the author of a university textbook about the local government of Canadian cities. For many outside academe, this might seem like a notable academic accomplishment and, given the usual price of such books, possibly even a source of considerable personal income from royalties. Those inside Canadian universities know the truth: writing a textbook is generally not viewed as a significant academic accomplishment and, except in the rarest of cases involving texts with a potentially large international market, the financial rewards are almost insignificant.

In recent years there has been growing evidence that university textbooks are becoming extinct. It is said that students won’t buy them because they are too expensive; professors often won’t assign them because they can put together their own course packs; and tech-company “disruptors” can replace them with their own platforms for online learning in which instructors can integrate their own written material, videos, quizzes and discussion groups all within a totally electronic experience.

The latest sign that the disruptors are getting serious is the purchase by Toronto’s Tophatmonocle (Top Hat) of Nelson Education’s university textbook division this past May. Top Hat’s CEO claimed that physical textbooks were on their way out and that his platform allowed professors to “publish their own textbooks.”

I could not care less whether my own text appears as a printed physical book, an electronic file, or both. Let the marketplace decide. Even though I am a senior citizen and retired from my full-time academic position, I have no objection to using my book to refer students to relevant videos and to including exam-type questions at the end of each chapter, practices which were not common when I was an undergraduate. I am sufficiently traditional, however, to hope that student discussions will usually take place in a classroom (after COVID-19, of course) rather than on a software platform designed by a commercial enterprise.

What I am mostly concerned about, however, is content, not the medium through which the content is delivered. I have been teaching and writing about the governance arrangements of large Canadian urban areas for about 50 years. My publisher, Oxford University Press, a non-profit division of that university, has been publishing books for about 10 times that long, although the Canadian outpost of OUP is admittedly not quite so experienced. The important point is that OUP Canada exerts tight content control through its peer-review process and subjects every manuscript to serious copyediting.

Quality control

Companies like Top Hat aim to provide academic content from electronic publishers like U.S.-based Cengage, but it is hard to believe that they will ever be as concerned about academic quality as long-established educational publishers have been. Top Hat is, after all, primarily in the software business.

Textbooks that go through a rigorous quality-control process can make some kind of claim to be comprehensive and authoritative, at least within the frame of reference determined by the author and the multiple reviewers who provide feedback throughout the writing and development process. This does not mean, of course, that other academics in the field will agree. They can use their own classrooms to express their disagreements or, as long as textbooks still exist, they can write their own. Alternatively, they can use an electronic platform to prepare alternative material for their class. But such work on the online platforms is labour-intensive and will gain even less academic credit within the university than writing a textbook.

Writing a textbook is not given much credit in the academic world because it is not considered to be original research of the kind published as articles in peer-reviewed journals or as monographs by top-ranked university presses. In the case of OUP, profits from successful textbooks are used to subsidize such monographs, the content of which then becomes material for textbooks – a virtuous circle.

Writing a good textbook requires the synthesis of much published information, some of it well beyond the author’s usual fields of personal research. A good textbook might not create much new information, but it does make a great deal of research accessible in a way that it would not be if it were never referenced in a textbook. Software developers can provide digital platforms for vast amounts of information. Textbooks make it possible for students to understand its significance.

Good textbooks make for better courses. Some instructors might be so knowledgeable in the course’s subject matter and so talented as communicators that they might not need a textbook. But we all know of many situations where someone is assigned to teach a course without knowing a great deal about some or all of the detailed subject matter. Textbooks are lifelines for instructors in such situations.

In my view, good university textbooks should be able to be used outside the classroom by ordinary citizens. They should be available in many local public libraries, even if this means some potential student sales will be lost. Relevant books should continue to be marketed in postsecondary institutions, but also to graduates who wish to keep up with their field and to those who find themselves working in a field in which they were not originally trained.

Developers of online learning platforms can doubtless do a great deal to improve university teaching and learning, especially when, for whatever reason, online courses are the only alternative. But they cannot replace good textbooks. Traditional publishers must still recruit authors and shepherd their manuscripts through the complex processes of review and editing. Then they must produce them, in electronic form and/or in print. They should continue to market their products within our postsecondary institutions while also expanding their reach to local libraries and to graduates who still want or need to learn.

Andrew Sancton is a professor emeritus of political science at Western University. He is the author of Canadian Local Government: An Urban Perspective.

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  1. Ray Chartrand / September 24, 2020 at 13:54

    A well written text book will always serve as the basis or foundation for any given subject. The problem arises in the scientific community where advances occur so rapidly that the text is obsolete before the ink dries.
    Your experience in academics roughly mirrors my experience in technical training in the electronics industry.
    The first time a recent graduate sees an assembly line, he soon realizes all that theory doesn’t count for much in the real world