Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The "no textbook" decision

Let me make it clear from the outset that I like textbooks. I've kept many of the texts I used during my graduate school days, along with a sizable number of more recent acquisitions. At their best, textbooks provide research, case studies, insights from business heavy hitters (remember, this is a business school), and visually enticing diagrams, photographs, and charts. How could anyone not love a well-written textbook?

Well, today's students, mostly. They not only prefer to read and write in shorter bursts (think text messages and tweets), they also want to be able to find the absolute latest information available. I've been surprised--pleasantly and on more than one occasion--how quickly students can and do investigate a casual reference I've made to some topic...often before the end of the day and quite frequently before the end of that class period.

Kansas State University's Digital Ethnography Project conducted a survey of 200 students and found:
  • They complete 49% of the readings assigned to them.
  • They buy textbooks that are never opened.
  • The reading ratio of books to web pages is 8:2300.
And we (meaning academics) have inadvertently contributed to the decline in textbook appreciation. Many instructors cover the textbook material so thoroughly in lectures that reading the text is really unnecessary; therefore, the cost of the textbook is seen as wasted money. I prefer that reading occur before students come to class (quaint, I know) and have varying levels of success with reinforcing that behavior. Still, it's a slog, at best.

The other way we've contributed to the downfall of the textbook is by taking steps to minimize student cost. In this particular course, we worked with the publisher to develop a custom text of only the required chapters, supplemented by relevant articles. The unintended consequence is a black-and-white version of the text, which significantly decreases the visual appeal. In fact, I use the original textbook simply because it's more enjoyable to read.

So, what will replace the text? A combination of classic articles (such as Michael Porter's "What is Strategy?"), videos used in the current course, student-driven research (within broad guidelines), and a requirement that students be able to understand and explain what they find. And I am knee-deep in the nuts and bolts of the details required to guide this process toward the learning objectives for the course.

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