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A Textbook Case

2013 July 10

There has been a LOT of debate and controversy surrounding the state of higher education in America recently–with interest on new federal student loans doubled as of July 1, conflict over admission policies, and the advent of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), there’s no question that education is changing, and it’s not necessarily for the better.

Because I work in academic publishing, I find all of this extremely interesting. Perhaps it’s even more interesting as someone who makes hefty student loan payments each month, but that’s a task I share with the majority of fellow college graduates. I consider myself very lucky to have gotten the quality education I did, though it was staunchly liberal arts, and many would argue that the humanities are experiencing a crisis right now, and students should be focusing more on business and other professional trades (engineering, medicine, accounting, etc.). But maybe that’s an argument for another day.

To be specific, I work as an editor for college English textbooks. It’s not the most glamorous job, but I like it, and I like the company I work for. I think we produce quality books and we do put a great deal of thought and effort into them, despite what the haters will say about textbooks being unnecessary and too expensive. Listen, I’d love for books to be cheaper too, but seeing how the industry works, I know that’s just not possible in most cases, unfortunately.

But that’s not really my argument here either. I’m worried about the state of education and the state of educational publishing. I started out at a different academic publisher, in Boston, and they recently underwent a massive restructuring. Now, a former coworker and friend tells me that the company has decided to brand themselves as a technology company–not a book publisher. There are no longer “editors” as such, but rather, “program managers” and “content developers.” Now, don’t get me wrong–I know there are many opportunities to be gained with the right kinds of learning software and I don’t necessarily believe that printed books will be around forever, or even that they are the perfect tool for the classroom. However, I worry that this focus on technology and online learning may mean a sacrifice in the quality of the overall content being offered.

MOOCs are a good example of this–many are touting these “open,” free courses as the answer to the high costs of higher education. But despite the attractive financial incentives, students are clearly not getting the many perks of in-person instruction. There is no personal engagement, no real responsibility because there’s nothing at stake. This kind of pre-packaged education just doesn’t teach the kinds of critical thinking, reading, and writing skills that every college student needs to learn.

Another technological gain that strikes me as a potential pedagogical loss is the development of auto-grading software. In textbook publishing, we see it all the time–there is a large demand from instructors and professors, many of whom are adjunct and teaching too many large classes, for gradable online activities and quizzes that their students can complete and the instructors won’t have to grade. All of that makes sense for certain disciplines and topics. However, when you start talking about auto-gradable essays, that’s when I start to break out in a cold sweat. Good writing has so many nuances and facets, and it’s important for students to develop a voice and a writing style, beyond grasping the basic elements of grammar. A computer is incapable of encouraging those nuances and skills or knowing the subtle differences that make a good sentence work.

I realize this is an off-topic rant, but I’m wondering if you readers out there have any opinions on this? I’d love to hear your perspective, whether you’re outside academic publishing, or work as a part of it.

Thanks for reading my rants!

5 Responses Post a comment
  1. Adam permalink
    July 10, 2013

    A very interesting topic, indeed! There has been, I believe, a lot of discussions and debates about the ongoing change in the structure of higher learning in the United States (and abroad, in most cases). It all comes down to the purpose of higher education — are there benchmarks we expect all students to meet? What should we prepare students for at these academic levels?

    A lot of people are making the case that higher education is a time period in which institutions are arming students with the nuanced skills to learn how to learn, better. In this way, liberal arts is (of course) multi-faceted – prioritizing key details and elements, analyzing texts and arguments, synthesizing and discarding, evaluating, and re-imagining. Thinking of the purpose of higher learning in this way, it may be easier to figure out the tools necessary to use (and purchase).

    This is all very interesting, too, because there is a movement in elementary and secondary education advocating for accrued content-specific knowledge (i.e. schools chosoe specific content topics and use those topics to teach various reading and writing skills).

    In terms of auto-grading and all that — I suppose there is a point at which students must be able to identify facts and key details in whatever discipline in which they are working (i.e. What metrical measure does ________’s poem use?) but an essay would be virtually (ha!) impossible to auto-grade. Not only does it miss the nuances you’re talking about such as voice and chosen syntax, it ignores organization, personal growth, prioritization of content, the ability to synthesize, etc.

    All of this is very interesting to me, of course. Hooray for me not working right now!

  2. Melissa permalink
    July 11, 2013

    Having taught at the college level in the field of criminal justice, I also find this topic very interesting. I agree that having a personal interaction with students is invaluable. Particularly in a field where there are many changing laws, policies, procedures and where everyone has a different opinion and point of view about all of them. Having a stimulating discussion is what keeps students (and teachers) invested in the learning process. When that element is taken out of the equation, I think there is a danger of making “learning” more about memorization and regurgitation of facts than about becoming a more intellectual person overall. Good topic!

  3. July 22, 2013

    I took a MOOC (Coursera) on programming in Python, mostly because I wanted to see what a MOOC was like. I found it disappointing, although the profs were all top-flight great guys from Rice U. Programming, I thought, would be a safe choice for a MOOC because programming is objective, right? Well, there are better and worse ways to write a program (easier to maintain, more elegant, runs faster), and the only pass/fail criterion for this class was whether the program ran. There wasn’t anyone looking at my code and saying, “Yes, but you’re pulling extra cycles here and here–it won’t scale well.” So even in a very objective subject matter, the idea that it is just information transfer is bogus.

    • Jill permalink
      July 23, 2013

      Yes, exactly. I think a major flaw of MOOCs is the lack of a dialogue between students and teachers, no matter what the subject matter!

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