Textbooks Are Zombies

picture of Harry KellerBy Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education

Despite plenty of nay-sayers, the textbook is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet and continues on walking about as though alive. Textbooks have evolved considerably over the last fifty years and even somewhat in the previous fifty years. I even have one, A Text-Book of Physics, on my bookshelf beside me that was printed in 1891. It has some line drawings and no color. Its size is about 5”x8”. Today, textbooks have lots of colorful images, plenty of side bars, and lots of engaging questions sprinkled about on their heavy-weight glossy paper stock. They also have tons of advice to teachers on how to use them effectively. They’ve gone about as far as they can go with paper as the medium.


The word “textbook” originated in the 1720s, almost 300 years ago. It’s had a good run and is ready to retire. Those who argue that you cannot learn well without a textbook ignore the centuries prior to 1720 when lots of people, not everyone of course, learned and learned well with no textbooks anywhere.

Some will say that books were around even if they weren’t textbooks. The movable-type printing press was invented around 1439, only 180 years before the word “textbook” was coined. Before that all writing was done by hand or by engraving an entire plate for each page making books very expensive. Yet, people were learning long before 1439 or 1720. Even stone-age tribes passed on learning from generation to generation. Some argue that having a repository of knowledge is one reason that our species evolved longer life spans than chimpanzees and Neanderthals.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and independently developed a movable type system ca. 1450.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and independently developed a movable type system ca. 1439.

You can learn without textbooks. That’s certain. And you can learn well. But why should we bother to change something that’s worked for 300 years? Many deliver the verdict in a single word: technology. That’s way too simplistic.

We’ve seen film loops, overhead projectors, motion picture projectors, machine scoring of tests, and a myriad of other technological innovations in classrooms, but the textbook remains. No, technology alone will not end the reign of the textbook. It takes something more, and that became available in the 1940s as a new technology, the programmable electronic computer. Here we are 70 years later with plenty of textbooks visible. The programmable electronic computer was not sufficient by itself.

The next big change began with ARPANET in the 1960s. This foundation led to the Internet, which became generally available around 1995, in just the last twenty years. Its growth has been simply phenomenal. But a widespread communication medium is not sufficient to dislocate textbooks either. Inexpensive computers, easy-to-use interfaces (GUIs), and ready access to the Internet all contribute.

Fine, say many. But the textbook publishers are putting their books online. They are creating e-textbooks. So, textbooks live!

This argument misses the essential difference between earlier education technology and the present, other than mere cost. Computer software can be interactive. Previous education technology was, like textbooks, rather passive. You can read the experts on learning and see that active learning is far superior to passive learning, so much so that it’s not a step, not a leap, but a rocket-propelled launch past old-fashioned learning. And that will make the difference.

Just look up the definition of “textbook.” One source (Collins English Dictionary) has it as “a book used as a standard source of information on a particular subject.” Basically, it’s a reference book, something to which you refer if you have a question. Wikipedia plays that role for us now. The pictures in textbooks can be found, along with many more, by simple Internet searches. Videos explaining just about anything are readily found on YouTube and in other places.

It’s the mental engagement with something that determines whether you learn and how well. Everyone certainly has had the experience of attempting to learn from a textbook, of reading and rereading to grasp the gist of what’s being explained and being frustrated. You cannot ask a textbook a question, and textbooks don’t notice which pages you’ve read or how much time you spent reading them. They’re totally passive.

The new online textbooks being promoted by textbook companies are billed as being interactive, but what is the interaction? It’s being quizzed. You aren’t really engaged, you’re being drilled. Textbook companies are run by people who spent their entire careers in the book publishing business. Everything looks, to them, like a page in a book. They’re used to ten-year plans and twenty-year obsolescence plans for books. They have trouble thinking in Internet terms, of grasping the difference between what they’re used to and what the future is bringing at breakneck speed.

While many suggest that the ability of software to adapt to individuals will be what ends textbooks, it’s clear that textbook companies anticipate this issue and are building or buying companies who build quizzing systems that adapt and that can provide remedial work to help students gain full understanding of the current topic. Yet, this approach remains mostly drill and mostly passive.

The really big change will come when students can jump into online situations that are more like real life, and software for this is coming at us now from every direction. It’s still in its infancy but growing fast. This is real active learning. Reading, watching, and quiz drill are not. Students must see their every action as having consequences and must learn from those consequences. Those actions must be similar to the real world and not the classroom world.

Here’s how this commentator sees the future of education. Students will be able to use a variety of devices to reach the web and become part of the learning community. They will be guided by a combination of human mentor and machine analysis. They will have learning goals known by all involved in their education. They will acquire knowledge and skill at hyper speed compared to most of today’s students. Furthermore, diagnostic analysis of their work will tell mentors when students are ready for certain learning and, more importantly, when they’re not for reasons of preparation or maturity.

I had two important life experiences that taught me much about our potential for learning. The first was being skipped over third grade in elementary school. It took me one weekend to assimilate all of that third-grade learning that the teachers thought was necessary and one week to catch up with all of the rest. Yes, one entire year’s worth of learning was capable of being assimilated in one week with adequate motivation. While I was an above-average student, I wasn’t so far above my fellows that they would have taken even a month to do the same as I.

The second was college. I was fortunate (and cursed in a way) to be accepted by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). The next four years were so intense as to be almost a blur. Surviving seems a miracle in retrospect. I went on to one of the top five graduate schools in my field and obtained a PhD in just over four years with little effort compared to my classmates due to that undergraduate experience. They had to learn things that I had already learned.

You can learn faster and learn more than you think you can. Textbooks do not tap into our brains to realize that learning potential. New software that uses true active learning will. By so doing, it will eliminate textbooks of all forms, both printed and online, both passive and so-called interactive. Today, the textbook is a zombie. It’s just waiting for that wooden stake or silver bullet to put it to a well-deserved rest.
Updated 7.23.13

29 Responses

  1. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education Despite plenty of nay-sayers, the textbook is dead. It just doesn't know it yet and continues on walking about as though alive. Textbooks have evolved considerably over the last fifty years and even somewhat in the previous fifty years.  […]

  2. I agree with view on ‘interaction’ being built by publishers. Questions though… how does one put ‘bounds’ on knowledge/learning via the internet. Yes, you can look up anything on anything–who decides what to look up? Who decides what matters to learn and finds the matching ‘stuff’ out there to do so? How did your own two guiding experiences about learning occur –how could they happen–during the era of zombie textbooks? Finally-once the stake is driven in…what replaces textbooks?

    • Thank you for your comments.

      The software will define the bounds from its end; the teachers will define them from the other end.

      My two guiding experiences were long before textbooks began to die and before they became over-sized comic books.

      See my last paragraph. Active learning will replace textbooks. Textbooks and lectures are the most passive learning imaginable.

      • Active learning is-would be great to have- always. However, I wonder if perhaps you are giving software and the humans who write/program it too much credit (or potential)–and not giving the humans who taught you in third grade and at Cal Tech enough—you apparently learned very well then.

        • Having been a university professor myself, I do credit the people with their share of the effort. (hehe, I didn’t get taught in third grade.)

          Creating software for learning is not easy — unless you’re just doing memory-based test prep. Making really great learning software will take time and experience. The person (instructor) will continue to play a crucial role for the foreseeable future (at least the future that I can foresee). That role will shift. Just look at what a crude tool such as Khan Academy has accomplished in redefining what instructors do.

          My point about those experiences is that we CAN learn more rapidly than we already do. There are plenty of academic papers on this topic, but I felt that a couple of personal examples would resonate better than some dry studies and theories. To realize our learning potential, we must have better learning modes. Textbooks are, IMO, very inefficient as learning devices.

  3. 1720 is nearly 300 years, not 200 years from today. Maybe if you had more textbooks and read them, such an error wouldn’t have made it all the way to publication. This is a very simplistic article, superficial. It’s a major topic and is tied up with our educational systems preeminence in the world. To simply say that because we have this new technology that the old one, which has history at its back, should be chucked just because this new stuff is ‘cool’ is not a defensible, in my opinion, argument.

    • Thank you for pointing out the date error. The correction has been made. This was an editing slip, and I offer no excuse. Best, Jim S.

    • Hello Anonymous, whoever you are.

      I did not claim that the new wave sweeping into education is “cool.” It’s fundamentally different because it has the potential for active learning and true interaction.

      As the Kindle has shown, 500 years of paper-based book history does not cement them in our lives forever. But, the Kindle is just a small bump compared to what software can do for learning.

      Think of motion pictures that began pretty much a films of stage plays. Close-ups were added quite quickly. Then, outdoor scenes were included. The repertoire expanded until the motion picture became an entirely different experience from a stage play.

      Stage plays remain but are a small percentage of our entertainment time. For a while, movies were the primary vehicle. Then, radio ate into the entertainment sector. Television made a huge difference.

      We have only begun to explore new online technologies for education just as the early days of silent motion pictures just began to tap the potential for recording and playing back acted pieces. Just as in the early motion picture days, we have lots of ideas about what can be done and limitations due to the underlying technologies. Both will expand, and learning will never be the same again.

      I am playing a part in this expansion and have been for over ten years. I write from personal experience.

    • Here’s a report from the PEW site: http://libraries.pewinternet.org/2013/06/25/younger-americans-library-services/

      They’re looking at so many different factors that it’s hard to determine what it means for the issue that Harry raises. Subjects in the target group (16-29) are heavily into digital communication devices yet feel they need access to libraries and their study spaces, equipment, hardbooks, and librarians.

      From the report, we can’t tell if subjects preferred hardbooks over ebooks for a given purpose. In other words, if they had a choice of an e or h verson of a book, which would they choose? What factors influence their choice? If the choice is between e or h forms of school or college textbooks — which is the focus of Harry’s article — which would they choose? Can’t say, at least from the info in these reports.

      I enjoy libraries as physical spaces, too. They’re usually cool, clean, well-lighted, and quiet, perfect for studying or working on my laptop. For certain data that’s not avaiable in digital form, libraries are still critical. Librarians are also critical for research in areas that haven’t been digitized. Like the subjects in the study, I enjoy browsing stacks of fiction and nonfiction. However, for nonfiction, if the same h-books were availabe digitally, I’d prefer the digital. For fiction, I still prefer h-copy, especially paperback.

      • Librarians also have an invaluable role in guiding non academics in the exploration and assessment of digital online resources, and they have been and are at the forefront in defending users’ rights in the revisions of copyright national laws and international treaties. That’s because organizing knowledge is their job, and facilitating access to it their vocation.
        So even if – or rather, when – all library books have been digitized, librarians will still be needed. Take the so-called “orphan books” i.e. books whose right holders can’t be traced, but which are still or again under copyright. When the last copy of such a book falls apart, if there is a digital version in a library, making it available is still a copyright headache presently. But librarians have been leading the research for a copyright adaptation that would make it simpler.

      • I share Jim’s love of libraries even though I don’t have much time to spend in them these days due to pressures of business. It was in seventh grade that I discovered the library. For me it was a small auxiliary library near my school run by a wonderful white-haired lady who was unbelievably helpful. I began to order books from the county system because of her. Soon, my reading range expanded. I almost consumed books — they were so mind-expanding.

        Today, I have a few bookshelves with special books on them. I have Mendeleev’s “The Principles of Chemistry,” both volumes of which I’ve read from cover to cover. I have “The Endless Quest” by F. W. Westaway, one of the greats of science education. I have “A Text-Book of Physics,” the 1891 edition, by E. H. Hall and Bergen. Hall is famous for discovering the Hall effect. I have an autographed copy of Pauling’s “The Nature of the Chemical Bond,” the textbook for the course I took from him. I have Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,”

        Most fiction I read on my Kindle. Most non-fiction I have on bookshelves to read again and again.

        Yes, there’s something magical about the clean, well-lit spaces of a quiet library. I hope that the librarians of the world can keep them alive and well.

  4. Nice article. I look forward to a personal teacher in my pocket with verbal interphase and perhaps the capability to project. Something like our present ‘smart’ cars and homes but much advanced. As someone who is not connected with an institute of higher learning I run into obstacles quite often over ‘security’ concerns or primarily copyright. Too often searches end up at abstracts, rather than actual information – please sign up and get your credit card out…

    Then there is the resistance from the teaching community as such a personal device could replace the traditional bricks-and-mortar system entirely.

    • You’ll find nearly as many ideas about the future of brick-and-mortar institutions as there are people interested in that.

      Personally, I don’t see them disappearing for K-12 education. I also see a path to keeping them in higher education but with much re-purposing of the structures.

      I predict (a very dangerous thing to do) that computers will not replace instructors in education for many decades, if ever. I do see them causing a beneficial role change for instructors, however. Those who merely parrot book content and prepare students for mind-numbing tests will no longer be required.

      • Suppose the students have to learn about the water cycle.
        According to the author, a student will BEST learn about the water cycle while __________.
        A. creating a miniature model of it
        B. listening to a teacher explain it in detail
        C. reading about it through colourful textbooks
        D. watching an informative video about it on the internet can u please answer

        • A. creating a miniature model of it

          A no-brainer.

          However, your four choices are incomplete. We do have other options. B, C, and D are rather awful options. Answer A requires more time and money than a really good computer-based solution. However, most computer-based learning systems have been poor pedagogically. I am not as closely involved as when I wrote that article and cannot list the online science-learning systems today with their pros and cons. I could relate to about five years ago.

          It seems that most learning online involves memory lessons or algorithmic simulations. Moving away from those, at least in science, takes great effort. It’s a sort of quantum leap that the software must make. The cost of making software that provides interaction with the real world and student decision-making tends to be great. There’s also the conservative nature of education that likes to avoid quantum leaps. They prefer to automate what they have been doing for centuries and call that innovation.

        • Sometimes, you can combine all of B, C, and D to achieve mediocre but adequate learning. Let’s face facts here. If students had to create miniature models of each and every lesson topic in a school year, the number of topics would have to be reduced substantially. What to do?

          I would have a select number of hands-on activities (projects if you will) and fill in with online resources that are a leap above the typical ones you find out there.

  5. […] "Despite plenty of nay-sayers, the textbook is dead. It just doesn’t know it yet and continues on walking about as though alive. Textbooks have evolved considerably over the last fifty years and even somewhat in the previous fifty years. I even have one, A Text-Book of Physics, on my bookshelf beside me that was printed in 1891. It has some line drawings and no color. Its size is about 5”x8”. Today, textbooks have lots of colorful images, plenty of side bars, and lots of engaging questions sprinkled about on their heavy-weight glossy paper stock. They also have tons of advice to teachers on how to use them effectively. They’ve gone about as far as they can go with paper as the medium."  […]

  6. […] A journal for educational technology & change. …. John Adsit.  […]

  7. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education Despite plenty of nay-sayers, the textbook is dead. It just doesn't know it yet and continues on walking about as though alive. Textbooks have evolved cons…  […]

  8. It is a great article.. but if you are stuck in the time warp of non functioning broadband, with hardly educated technologists as guides, there is a fear that digitalization, in reality just will push another stake into the heart of public education. On Facebook, the ” Bad Assed Teachers ” carry this charge. They say that we are selling out the
    schools to corporate entities.

    I am sure that few people have ever been to a school with 20 year old books. I did because I am black. I am sure that many people who know science did not learn it all after graduating from college. In the real world of urban cities and rural backwaters everything we share, except GPS technologies, and weather , and routing for school buses does not affect the schools who need , online labs, visualization and modeling, MOOC’s and technology tools the most.

    I attended the CSTA conference in Quincy , Massachusetts. The first day, I was the minority person in the whole conference . It was wonderful to hear the people who are guiding the thoughts try to instill the idea that technology is for all. Yes, the young people have tools, but what do they use them for I doubt that they use them to look up the incredible chemistry resources at MIT , or the visualization and modeling that comes from the groups that are involved with the National Centers of Supercomputing Applications. I will write about that conference.. Margolis , of “Stuck in the Shallow End” has workshops that try to share the message of new technology with the staff and students who are indeed stuck in the shallow end. They are not zombies as the textbooks are reported to be , they are prisoners of bad economics and poor politics.

    Actually with the dependence on testing the information I got back in the day might serve them better than it’s January let’s prep for the test. Probably people who are not minorities don’t notice that mostly white people are in charge of making decisions, creating thought streams, and decision making… even in urban communities. but then I live in DC which purports to be a community, but is run by congress an crooks…. so children are stuck in the shallow end.

    • While the world is talking about Trevon Martin, the picture and the content remind me that there are walking , undereducated minorities that are indeed zombies and that little will happen to change their world , the prison to pipeline is waiting. They will help those who manage prisons to make money.

    • Yes, those are real concerns. Ancient textbooks with missing and scribbled pages won’t solve them either.

      It’s long past time to recognize that Internet access is as important as electricity in the modern world. That counts double for schools.

      I’ve been to very poor rural and urban schools. The rural ones could have as few as 100 students in an entire district. The urban ones might be in decaying buildings with unsafe science labs that could only be used if all utilities were turned off (including water and gas).

      You could say that the differences between wealthy and poor neighborhood schools is beyond extreme to being ludicrous, but it’s not funny at all. It’s destroying lives while costing the local, state, and federal governments tons of money.

      A good education for all is one of the best investments our society can make. It not only saves money; it makes money for us as a country. Yet, two groups of people oppose it: a large sub-group of the wealthy who cannot see beyond their bank account statements, and a large sub-group of the poor (believe it or not!!) who have been fed lots of lies that they’ve begun to believe.

      Better education could solve the latter problem and leave the former with a choice to go along or turn to extreme fascism.

      The future of education rests with technology. We cannot avoid it. Some will be left behind if we all don’t use our heads and support any initiative that helps put more of the technology infrastructure in ALL of our schools.

      • Please note well that I said technology infrastructure, not technology alone. Adding mere technology to schools can do more damage than not adding it unless care is taken. You cannot add technology without the infrastructure. I’ve seen poor infrastructure in more schools than you can imagine. The peculiar purchasing policies of school districts almost forces this to happen. But, there are exceptions. I was at schools in New York City that had horrible Internet access that they thought was fine and that cost lots of money. In Prince George’s County, they had an incredible infrastructure and a commitment to improve it continually. They also were managing cost containment. And, they abut the DC school district.

  9. DC is a basket case. Political winds, philosophical winds, and the remains of the day of Michelle Rhee. Some of her work continuing but the person doing it is black so no one says much. I have talked to people about the infrastructure in DC and they just shake their heads. In a few pilot schools some hope. OCTO is allowing us at JEF a non profit, to have access to incredible bandwidth, but we are not a school, we are advocates for change. Abuting DC, means that it is possible to work there and have your kids in a great suburban school like the one I used to teach in. It never occured to me that there was such a vast difference. Unchangeable difference so far. Instead of crying about it, I go, learn stuff and we work with the children we are able to reach and teach.

    • This article does highlight several factors that many miss or misunderstand. It goes a bit far in recommending symmetrical Internet access because few people upload vast quantities of data or video content. Maybe this will change as cloud-delivered services increase in popularity.

      Note the standard of 100 Mbps. I have a very high bandwidth (for the U.S.) of 35 Mbps. It’s a business connection and so is substantially more expensive than a consumer connection because it includes multiple fixed IP addresses and 100% guaranteed bandwidth. Consumer bandwidth numbers are maximum numbers and decline during high-use periods. The cost is amazingly low at under $200 per month when compared with very recent costs of over $400 for a T1 line that had a capacity of 1.5 Mbps. Over 20 times the bandwidth for less than half the cost.

      Because of the nature of my business (online hands-on science labs), I would like to have greater upload than download speeds. I’ve found no service that delivers this capability. So, my download bandwidth lies mostly unused.

      I am told that this fiber connection has a total capacity for one individual customer of 300 Mbps (not sure if combined up/down or both at same time). The vendor is slowly releasing this capacity and mostly as very asymmetrical packages, lots more download than upload, which doesn’t help me.

      Fiber Internet is coming to all densely populated areas with higher average income for the obvious cherry-picking reasons. Those in sparsely populated or poverty-level areas can only look in from the outside. That’s where our federal government can make a difference, as in the TVA project of long ago. But, certain politicians wish to make hay (votes and money) off of demagoguery. OMG, they exclaim, your taxes will go up. They fail to mention that YOUR taxes don’t have to go up if we simply retreat from the wealth redistribution to the top that has taken place in recent decades.

      The article also makes too much of the high end of access. If we just were able to upgrade all people still using dial-up access, that would be a huge leap forward. The always-on, higher bandwidth connections must be affordable as must any utility. That’s where the solution lies. We must consider Internet to be another utility that’s subject to regulation.

      Sure, schools who have lots of simultaneous users have to have really high, even Gigabit, connections. Individual consumers may feel as though they’re drinking from a fire hose with 25 or 50 Mbps connections. Businesses must have more if they have more than a modest number of online users (not talking about storefronts here but delivering services). We can deal with around 10,000 total users right now because they’re not all simultaneous.

      It’s an odd world we live in today. S. Korea and parts of Europe have better Internet at lower cost than do we who claim to be on the leading edge of innovation and technology. Hah! Won’t last unless we do something. Also, the enormous disparity in access to so many of our society’s resources is being exacerbated by the current policies that simply allow for outrageous CEO salaries and waste in the major Internet access companies. I hope we can change this.

  10. Actually not just the current policies. I was on the NIIAC, we promised broadband to the nation in 1995 but the political winds changed and the vendors took charge. Not your fault. Fights with the FCC etc.

  11. […] By Harry Keller Editor, Science Education Despite plenty of nay-sayers, the textbook is dead. It just doesn't know it yet and continues on walking about as though alive. Textbooks have evolved cons…  […]

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