Tuesday, March 02, 2010


He wrote the book

Teachers, especially at the college level, have been using their own books for textbooks for a long time, and that’s a fine thing. In college, we’d often want to have a particular professor for a class because “he wrote the book.” But now, textbook publisher McMillan will be introducing changeable textbooks that allow teachers not only to reorganize the material that’s there, but actually to rewrite sections as they want them to be. It will let them rewrite the book.

In a kind of Wikipedia of textbooks, Macmillan, one of the five largest publishers of trade books and textbooks, is introducing software called DynamicBooks, which will allow college instructors to edit digital editions of textbooks and customize them for their individual classes.

Professors will be able to reorganize or delete chapters; upload course syllabuses, notes, videos, pictures and graphs; and perhaps most notably, rewrite or delete individual paragraphs, equations or illustrations.

“Readers,” the Times asks, “can modify content on the Web, so why not in books?”

The good side of this, of course, is that teachers will be able to correct real errors, update changing information, and point students to new studies and results, without having to wait for a new edition of the book to come out. But, really, teachers have been doing that forever, by providing adjuvant material to accompany the textbook — in my school days, it was a few mimeographed sheets, or lecture material that students were expected to note themselves.

“There’s an error in the textbook,” we might have been told, or “We have new information since the textbook was printed.” That worked for us, and it made the process quite visible.

But the answer to the Times’ question is that with this mechanism, changes can be made quietly, without an opportunity for review, without pointing out what the changes were.

Creationist science teachers can undermine their science classes by altering the sections about evolution.

Racist or sexist history teachers can alter history, minimizing the contributions of certain people.

Teachers can change information simply because they disagree with it, perhaps because of political, social, or religious ideology.

Even when the changes are intended to correct facts, it’s harder to identify the corrections, and, so, harder to determine whether the corrections are themselves actually correct.

This technology certainly has potential. I wonder, though, how it will turn out to be used — and abused — and whether it will work in practice.

I guess we’ll just have to see. I hope someone will be watching very closely.

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