A Textbook Case
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!