The extinction of textbooks

Thursday, March 23, 2017
by Sabrina Guillen

If you’ve ever been a student in your life, then you know the horrors of having to shell out several hundred dollars for one textbook that you’ll probably use once or twice and then never need again. While textbooks are usually handed out for free in high school, given that it expected of you to treat them well and return them at the end of the semester, this is somehow not a practice commonly used at university. Admittedly, many courses and professors are attempting to cut down on their reliance on expensive textbooks, by posting most of their information on LEARN, using course reserves for online sources or handing out much cheaper courseware packages. Some schools are already latching onto the idea that this concept of textbooks, whether it’s having to purchase them or haul their heavy weight around all day at school, should be disbanded. Instead, they’re now attempting to go digital. Their textbooks have turned into pdfs easily found online through a school controlled site and students are presented with the technology necessary to access this information during class time. What are the bigger implications of this possible extinction of textbooks? Are we dumbing down the learning process for generations to come? Is it detrimental to the health of students to be constantly looking at electronic devices to study?  These concerns will naturally arise, but in the end it is probably just part of the evolution of technology and society that can’t be stopped.

Nowadays it’s more important than ever to be connected. Owning a cellphone and having a running email is almost mandatory to be a functioning and working adult. There are entire forms of communication that people miss out on if they live “off the grid”. For example, most companies have turned away from physical advertisements, such as flyers or ads in magazines, and instead promote on their social media, buy up ad time in television shows, or place their ads in front of YouTube videos. They are fully aware that people spend a great part of their day online, and therefore target them. It therefore makes sense that learning is slowly transitioning to being online.  Even here at the University of Waterloo, I couldn’t even imagine trying to survive a course without access to a computer or internet to go on LEARN. This, however, is a huge benefit.

Without LEARN, for example, co-op students that are at placements outside of the KW region would have a much harder time of taking courses if they needed to catch up on their requirements or something. Additionally, missing a day of classes due to sickness doesn’t seem quite as severe (though, we can be perfectly honest that most students get “sick” rather often in the year), since LEARN will usually have slides or information to supplement what you’ve missed.  Being online gives us the feeling of being only a few keystrokes away from information. If we’re writing up a discussion post or working on an assignment, we’re already where we need to be if a question arises. My generation doesn’t pick up the phone to call anyone these days. And why would you, when you can just send a text or email? Imagine this, students who attended university before the creation of the internet actually had to phone professors or visit their office hours. For many of you shy individuals, that might seem like an utter nightmare and I have to admit that I fall prey to the same laziness of just being able to send off a question whenever you have one; whether that be from the comfort of you home in your pajamas or from the other side of the world.

On the flip side, however, there are naturally downsides to this extinction of textbooks. Now, I don’t want to be that typical person that tells you we’re all technology addicted and it’s going downhill from here. Bear with me for a second though. In grade 12 I had the freedom of doing a book report on any book I'd like, as long as it would academically be appropriate and fit within the genre/theme limitations. I decided to choose the book Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. In this science-fiction novel, a pandemic known as the "Georgia Flu" has ravaged its way across the world having massively deadly effects. However, the story actually takes place, twenty years after this "apocalypse" and focuses on how life has been re-established. Naturally electricity and technology ceased to exist shortly after the collapse of civilization and thus the people born into this new age know nothing about it. While the story focuses more on personal conflict and the social system that exists in a crudely rebuilt world, the most striking part of the novel is right at the end. The main character, after experiencing loss and the brutal nature of humans, being very close to giving up herself, is looking into the dark night when she sees lights. The lights are from a nearby town that are somehow using electricity again. For her this is both a symbol of hope and that civilization is building itself up again.

Now, while that was quite the long tangent, what I’m trying to say with that reference is that we are rather dependent on technology. If the entire electrical system, and therefore the internet, was to one day suddenly crash and never come back again, our entire society would have to drastically change.  Are we leaving ourselves vulnerable by converting everything to an online space? After all, if it’s online, it’s accessible by someone out there and if that’s possible, then there’s always someone who is looking to corrupt or destroy it. The extinction of textbooks might be an extreme example to tie this to, but one has to look at it as more of the first stepping stone of many to come. Will we ever get to the point where books are historical artifacts and entire generations of people exist that have never had to use one? It’s definitely food for thought. While I’m all for digitising the learning experience, I have to say that some parts of writing are sacred. As an English major myself, I find it devastating to think that physical writing is dying out. Organizations such as newspapers have to publish online content to even stay relevant. I guess this might just be the musings of someone who’s looking a bit too far into the future. Only time will tell.