The Fate of Textbooks

A couple weeks ago, I read an article mentioning Bill Gates had stated textbooks are becoming obsolete. Then, a day or two later, it was mentioned on the morning radio show as I was driving. So, I decided to look into this assertion and ponder its reality.

Bill Gates first made his textbook prediction in The Road Ahead, published in 1995. However, the topic was revisited in his 2019 Annual Letter. In the twenty-four years which have passed between these two publications, students still have textbooks. In the twenty-four years to come, will the same be true?

To understand his viewpoint, I read the 2019 Annual Letter, specifically, “Surprise #8 Textbooks are becoming obsolete. Software is finally changing how students learn.” What I immediately notice is the discussion by Bill who relates how the digital tools enhance algebra learning, and I agree with this vision. When students are independently practicing a concept taught in class, the digital tools serve as tutors to help students who are stuck and (what he doesn’t mention) can additionally support students who grasp it quickly and provide a challenge. This would help teachers in differentiating the content, as well as provide support to students who just need a little help while the teacher works with a small group of students who need significant help learning the concept. So, I agree the software can serve as an enhancement to textbooks.

Then, in Melinda’s thoughts on the topic, she references college students. Once again, I see the benefits of the software in this setting—one in which the learner is in command of their academic growth and little teacher interaction with students beyond the lecture. The tools provide the tutoring support on a flexible schedule as students are self-paced and accommodate learning to the other demands on their time.

Both of their references focus on the higher levels of learning where students are cognitively and biologically different than elementary and middle school age students. Additionally, the tools serve as content enhancers not replacers. Even when thinking about my own experience writing this blog post, I was able to read an article, watch a video on YouTube, and access a copy of the Gates’ annual letter all without leaving the comfort of my office chair via the internet. I like the concept of having specially selected videos, information, and games for students to access without the concern of them seeing inappropriate or inaccurate content which can happen when they have access to the internet on their own. That is a benefit of having the software enhancements to the textbook.

One note Bill makes is the software is advancements are only in the areas of math and science. I would think this could serve as a great enhancement to history textbooks giving you the opportunity to link to original historic documents and other primary source documents related to the historical topic. (Even I played the Oregon Trail game on a Commodore PC.) Also, technology can serve to support textbooks in staying current with scientific discoveries and societal events.

Beyond math and the sciences, I do not see the textbook replacement happening. The Gates Foundation funds a free course called “Big History” and in an interview addressing this topic, Bill states the feedback the computer gives students on their writing is basic and still requires the support of a teacher as digital tools focus on the grammar and format not the actual writing. In reading, studies have found people pay closer attention to printed materials than the digital version. We tend to skim more when reading from a screen than in print. Additionally, printed materials give us an opportunity to write our thinking as we read. Bill and Melinda both did this throughout their letter in the margins. Furthermore, students are not reading into the device, so they are not being coached upon their actual reading.

Cost savings for college students was mentioned in the letter. However, I personally do not believe the same savings will be reflected in the public K-12 setting. First is having the proper infrastructure that supports the amount of wireless access to devices all at once. There are high schools where I live which have 4,000 students who would all need devices working on the wi-fi system at the same time. The number does not take into account teachers and other staff members accessing the wi-fi. Who is going to fund bringing school buildings up to the standards to support this technology? In an interview, Bill Gates even states, “Educational innovation, we as a society way under-invest in.” Once the infrastructure is in place, all students need equal access to devices and there would need to be technical support staff at each school for the devices. Also, the terms of the software agreements need to be negotiated for them to be more cost effective than a traditional textbook. The total price for infrastructure, devices, support, and software needs to be equal or less than the textbooks for it to be cost benefit. In current textbook adoptions there is one-time cost for each subject area that will not occur again for another 8-10 years. So, state governments would have to reconfigure their textbook funding system.

Thus, in the next twenty-four years I do not see textbooks becoming obsolete. I believe digital tools will make advancements in their abilities to enhance textbooks but not replacement them completely.

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