You're not stupid. But your textbook might be leaving you ignorant. Yep, that thing you're relying on to help you learn about an important subject could be letting you down. It might, in fact, be lying to you. I don't investigate any X-files, but I sometimes like to say, "Trust no one…and no textbook, either."
It's a shame. Aside from the free textbook downloads you can now find online, textbooks aren't just usually bland and boring; they're also expensive. For all the money we're forced to spend on them, we rightly expect traditional textbooks to— at the very least—be accurate. But a surprising number of them contain the kind of errors that could give any unsuspecting student a false sense of security about the quality of his or her education.
Grade-School Textbooks Most Afflicted
We've probably all encountered errors in our grade-school textbooks. If our teachers were good, they pointed them out and adjusted their lessons accordingly. But a few teachers (and probably most students) take the information found in textbooks for granted. They use textbooks as a crutch that enables their avoidance of using additional resources in the teaching (or learning) process.
I discovered this in eighth grade. My science teacher gave us a simple homework assignment: read a chapter about the solar system from our earth sciences textbook in preparation for a short quiz and class discussion. The following day, one of the questions on the quiz asked us to name and list the planets in correct order, starting from the Sun. For me, it was super easy. (I had already learned this stuff many years earlier.)
But when I received the graded quiz back, I noticed that my teacher had marked my answer about the planets as incorrect. Indignant, I pointed out his error. His response was to show me one of the textbook's illustrations as proof that he was right. The book's graphic showed Uranus orbiting closer to the Sun than Saturn.
I balked. I knew the book was wrong. I pleaded with him to check other sources. Eventually, he did. My answer was correct. But this kind of annoying experience repeated itself in different classes throughout that same semester—once in Algebra and at least three times in American History. I only noticed the errors because it was all stuff I'd learned previously while attending different schools in a different state. I hated my new home. I hated my new school. But I especially hated those textbooks.
College Textbooks Not Immune
But that is just grade school. The textbooks used in college are much better. Aren't they?
Sadly, many are not. Numerous college textbooks contain disturbing errors—beyond the small typos or innocent mistakes that are found in almost every book ever published.
The textbook-publishing industry is loath to talk about this subject. Part of their business model depends upon the perceived quality of their products. But enough academics have studied this issue that the evidence is impossible to deny. College textbooks may not be quite as prone to factual errors, political revisionism, or censorship of inconvenient truths as those published for grade schools, but they are still prone to them.
For instance, a college student in Florida recently discovered that his $180 statistics textbook was riddled with errors that made it impossible to use.
In 2006, an advanced-placement high school student discovered that his college-level history textbook contained many inaccuracies and biased editorializing about constitutional law and other politicized issues.
And many different academic studies have found factual errors, misleading statements, and outright omissions in everything from college math textbooks to biology textbooks to psychology textbooks.
OER: The Cure for Textbook Suckitis?
So, traditional textbooks often suck. But free online textbooks might just be coming to the rescue. As part of the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement, open textbooks (also known as open-access or open-source textbooks) offer the potential for more than just greater affordability for college students. The open-textbook movement could also result in fewer errors and less political manipulation.
This concept seems counterintuitive. After all, most open textbooks are licensed to allow users to:
• Use them free of charge
• Freely copy and share them
• Revise them
• Remix them with other learning materials
• Redistribute them
That's a whole lot of freedom for users. Surely, this can only lead to watered-down textbooks full of outrageous factual errors and, even more troubling, biased ideological interpretations of, well, absolutely everything—even (especially!) science.
I suppose that nightmare scenario could happen. But I'm hoping the things we've learned from the much more established trend of open-source software development will swing things in the other direction.
Numerous studies have shown that open-source software tends to offer better reliability and contain fewer bugs than closed, proprietary software. The developers who contribute to open-source projects nitpick the heck out of the code and offer their own improvements. The open-source community thrives on providing meticulous peer review and accountability.
Imagine a community of peers continuously making textbooks better in every possible way instead of waiting around for the big publishers to maybe, one day, get around to correcting stupid errors in later editions while students and instructors try to make due with sub-par learning materials.
Imagine a culture of open textbook creation that fosters an atmosphere of proactive critical thinking and skeptical inquiry rather than reluctant (or even passive) acceptance of expensive, error-filled textbooks from unresponsive publishers.
For all of this to happen, though, the OER movement will need to get better organized. Textbook authors, editors, and other content creators will need easier ways of finding each other and vetting the work they create. And instructors and students will need better ways of finding and accessing free textbook downloads and other open educational resources that have been thoroughly scrutinized by qualified academics.
Thankfully, there is already some movement in this direction. The University of Minnesota, for example, has launched an open-textbook project aimed at developing a central online catalog of complete, quality-reviewed learning materials.
College students can download the digital versions of these open textbooks for free. Or, since most students still prefer paper textbooks, they also have the option of purchasing inexpensive print-on-demand versions.
Time Will Tell
We'd all do well to remember that textbooks are just one kind of educational tool. Regardless of their form or how they've been created, we shouldn't allow them to get lodged at the center of our learning experiences.
Ultimately, nobody knows for sure what impact open textbooks will have. But I'm betting on positive outcomes in the long run.
What do you think? Could free online textbooks become an essential part of the solution to problems that ail higher education? Or am I just a complete nut bar?