Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Shortcomings of Traditional Textbooks in the Digital Age, and Our Invitation

It's like the old days on the biblioblogs, with intelligent, engaging and useful discussions across a number of different blogs on a topic of interest and relevance, with lots of exciting suggestions for the future. I'm talking, of course, about the current discussion on the future of textbooks, and what we, as digital pioneers in our area, have to contribute. OK, I know that that sounds a bit pompous, but I think it is true. There are more interesting ideas bobbing around the blogosphere than you'll find anywhere else.

In order, the blog discussion on this topic goes something like this: AKMA, NT Blog, Sansblogue, Anumma, AKMA, NT Blog, NT Blog, Exploring our Matrix, AKMA, with apologies if I have missed any contributions.  James McGrath has a useful breakdown of different models in his post.  In this post, I would like to draw attention to a key difficulty with current print textbooks in our area.

There is an extent to which publishers are conscious of the fact that the textbooks they are marketing have a rather old-fashioned feel, especially in relation to the lack of internet resources.  They know that most modern students are more media-savvy than their professors and that it is a case of digital natives vs. digital immigrants.  In a bid to plug this gap, a good number of big-selling textbooks now have a special companion website (Mark Allan Powell, Introducing the New Testament, Bart Ehrman, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament, Luke Timothy Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament).  This is hugely commendable -- the flashcards, the powerpoint presentations, the summaries -- these are all helpful additions to the student's experience.  But all of these fine websites have a central difficulty:  they are extensions of the single-authored textbook that they are complementing.  On the whole, they simply supplement the textbook with similar material, often authored or constructed by the publishers, or people working with the author and the publisher.  They have some idea of the potential for doing something different on the web, but they do not exploit the potential for linking to, embedding, integrating, engaging with existing resources on the net.  These textbooks therefore remain, essentially, single-author products, albeit products that are supplemented by useful, additional, publisher-supplied materials.

The potential that one sees in these types of companion websites, combined with the shortcomings of these websites, is in fact our invitation to rethink the idea of the "textbook", as I and others have been urging.  The weakness with the textbooks mentioned is that they are thoroughly single-authored affairs.  In some respects, that is, of course, an excellent thing.  I could not have a higher opinion of my colleague Bart Ehrman, for example, who is one of the authors mentioned above.  But in other respects, it is a problem.  The traditional textbook's difficulty is that however strong its author, it is still that author's views that are presented, in all their particularity.  What the textbook of the digital age can produce is something that is genuinely multi-authored as well as multi-media, a resource that encourages the university student to think critically from the earliest point by listening to different voices speaking on the same subjects.

This is where the digital pioneers come in.  Because we have at least some understanding of how the internet works, and what its potential is, we are in a position to do the kind of thing that these traditional textbooks, with their limited companion websites, are aspiring to do.

1 comment:

James D. Dvorak said...

Perhaps you have seen this: http://www.inkling.com/