Academic Inertia and Textbooks

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Textbooks are a crucial part of the learning process. They serve both as a substitute and a complement to a teacher. The organisation and content of a textbook is a physical manifestation of the curriculum and the structure of knowledge itself—it has a start and an end, and is arranged by key themes. Though there have been continuous debates about whether textbooks are necessary for education, the need for a resource which compiles ideas and gives an overall framework of the subject appears critical.  

With an increasing dependence on remote learning and self-learning, the choice of a textbook determines how the learner approaches and understands a discipline. The geometric approach to algebra gives a viewpoint that’s different from the algebraic approach. In some cases, the choice also defines whether you understand the topic or if learning is confined to examinations.

Especially in undergraduate studies, some books have been considered classics and are usually suggested by the instructor. The selection of a textbook is affected by academic inertia. When given an option to choose a text, professors prefer the classics and those used during their own undergraduate studies as they are already comfortable with the book’s content and organisation. Though newer editions of the textbooks are published periodically, the change mostly is limited to the cover, page numbers and price. Some changes are made in the sidebar, and supplementary material is added, but they are usually ignored. In a survey conducted by Student PIRGs, 76% of the faculty said that the newer editions are rarely justified. Most new authors also follow an approach and structure that is very similar to the classics.

The fundamental ideas in science, their interpretation and the approach to problems have seen significant transformations in the last century. Though the special theory of relativity has been around for more than a century, its position in undergraduate textbooks for mechanics remains confined to the last chapters. Similarly, Emmy Noether’s work which revealed the deep fundamental connection between symmetries and conservation laws, is rarely mentioned in textbooks.  

Analytical techniques have always been and probably will always be of fundamental importance to scientific education. However, numerical and computational methods are becoming increasingly important in today’s world. They are applied in just about every scientific and engineering field, yet their presence is limited to dedicated textbooks. The advent of personal computers at affordable prices has made it possible to execute and understand these approaches, unlike in the 1960s. In a world connected with the internet and numerous data-oriented experiments, knowing these methods is handy in every field. A numerical approach also provides a practical, intuitive approach to problems. 

What can be done?

Some textbooks and authors have used new and innovative approaches. Feynman’s Lectures on Physics is one such effort. While most books and introductory courses target those planning to study medicine or engineering and focus on formulaic problem-solving and exam preparation, Feynman’s Lectures stress cultivating a wonder for nature and the development of physical intuition. To quote Rob Phillips, “Feynman’s physics is about simplicity, beauty, unity and analogy, presented with enthusiasm and insight that bursts from the page”. Recently, I also came across a book called Matter & Interactions by Ruth Chabay and Bruce Sherwood. The book starts from basic principles and does not wait till the last pages to introduce fundamental concepts like the special theory of relativity. It also integrates numerical methods to develop simple computational models. Such revamping of the approach is essential.  

Owing to the rise in use of e-books, measures such as embedding links to useful resources and recent developments in the field and, more importantly making the books available in digital format at an affordable price are crucial. It is also worth mentioning the Global Teacher Prize 2020, which was awarded to Ranjit Dinsale, a primary school teacher from India, for his innovative teaching methods. Amongst his many other achievements, he embedded unique QR codes to give students access to multimedia resources to make the textbooks more useful to pupils. Furthermore, he upgraded the QR-coded textbooks with an immersive reader and Flipgrid tools to aid students with special needs. Such improvisations make learning a better experience. 

The higher costs of textbooks have resulted in students drifting towards open source and free content available on the internet. Efforts from various publications to make the textbooks available for free during the pandemic are to be appreciated. The digital era brings in multiple possibilities to make learning more comfortable and accessible. The need of the hour is to reconsider our approaches and update them periodically.