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The textbook – Not a substitute for teaching in HE

Textbooks have been around for a very long time. And textbooks are still set as compulsory purchases for students on many undergraduate university courses.

Publishers continue to visit university campuses, extolling the merits of the latest ‘must have’ textbooks and-or inviting academics to contribute a new textbook to the existing supply. Students are told to make sure they purchase the latest edition because last year’s is out of date, even though the changes add up to about one page worth of edits.

I will admit up front that I am not a big fan of setting a text that students must buy. (Note: I say this as an author whose books have, on occasion, been set as texts for university courses). A textbook represents just one source of data about a content area. That content can become quickly outdated.

The cost of university textbooks is also exorbitant for most students, with many choosing not to purchase them because of the high price. Others have been ‘warned off’ buying an expensive textbook by other students who claimed ‘it wasn’t particularly useful’ and-or ‘the teaching team never referred to it’.

Of course, the opposite can be true and those delivering the course can depend too heavily on a textbook. To me this is much more of an issue. (There is another issue, which I will just note here: namely those academics who set a book they have authored as the set textbook. Unfortunately, I have heard of cases where students have been ‘penalised’ by the academic if they do not purchase that set text. Universities must ensure they enact the appropriate process to counteract such unscrupulous practice).

Many textbooks are supplemented with practical teaching activities, discussion questions and problems for students to complete, with solutions provided. Each chapter or section in the textbook is sequentially organised and interpreted by some university teachers as representing the equivalent of their entire subject’s weekly lecture and tutorial schedule – in other words, what they do and how and when they do it. They just follow the textbook as the programme of work for their students.

It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about e-books or physical books because the dependency aspect remains the same.

Dependency and disadvantage

Reliance on ‘the textbook’ does not symbolise good teaching-learning practice. It is the lazy way out for the teacher and it disadvantages students in their learning.

University teachers are highly qualified in the discipline area they are teaching (well, hopefully they are). As professionals, they should use a broad source of contemporary references and learning materials in the preparation and delivery of their subject.

There is no good excuse for not doing so, even for academics who are just beginning their career, when universities have support units in place for those who require assistance. For example, there are workshops on how to put a curriculum together, how to appropriately link learning outcomes and assessment tasks, how to engage successfully in small group and large class settings ... and a lot more.

The university academic is the expert, surely – not the textbook, which is just one resource among many the university teacher might use.

Unfortunately, I have seen the above operating as the principal modus operandi in higher education and especially in institutions in some lesser-developed countries. Worse is the fact that in these places, the textbooks relied on were second-hand, very much out-of-date books.

And worse than this was the expectation that students learn great slabs from the textbook to regurgitate for high-stake end of semester exams. To me that is not the intention of higher education.

Learning how to learn

Connecting everything students encounter in a subject – the learning activities, content and assessment, to a single textbook is completely inadequate. Knowledge has become increasingly mutable and open to challenge and so-called facts can and do go out of date very quickly.

The role of the university teacher is to facilitate learning and learning includes knowing how to learn, how to research, where to go to find information in the future and how to apply that information to new situations.

Resources incorporated into any programme of work should be a diverse mix of easily and freely accessible online current research papers, conference proceedings, professional guidelines and interactive multimedia. With the wealth and multiplicity of resources publicly available out there, a textbook alone no longer suffices.

Dr Nita Temmerman is a former pro vice-chancellor (academic) and executive dean, faculty of education, at the University of Southern Queensland, Australia. She is currently chair of two higher education academic boards in Australia, visiting professor to Ho Chi Minh City Open University, Solomon Islands National University and Soran University in Kurdistan, as well as invited specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications, invited external reviewer with Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, a registered expert at the Australian Tertiary Education and Standards Agency, and a published author.
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