The Future of College Textbooks

Anyone can have a vision. Making that vision a reality is another matter.

Not long into my teaching career, I found myself with a vision for college textbooks. I wanted to utilize the Internet for publishing the textbooks, which had become too big and too expensive. I wanted to save the students a significant amount of money and save a few trees along the way. I knew where I wanted to go. I just needed a little help getting there.

Bigger Books D'esn't Equal Better Learning

I’ve been at Cornell since 1980, where I teach Introduction to Research Methods — one of the most challenging courses in my field of Policy Analysis and Management. And although it is very rewarding, it had also been a bit frustrating to me, and many others who taught it, that we have to purchase these huge textbooks for our students. I firmly believed that the bigger introductory textbooks didn’t translate into better knowledge or better learning. It seemed to me that there had to be a way to address the problem of these oversized textbooks.

I had always been an avid user of technology, wrote some of my own software, and vigorously used this relatively new media called the Internet. When I started creating my own presentations to teach my classes, the students wanted to copy them. I eventually loaded my presentations into a networked web environment. Then I wrote out my lectures to provide some narrative to go along with the presentation slides. I could simply point the students to this Intranet and let them download the classes. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I didn’t need to order those huge textbooks anymore. At the time, this was a relatively innovative idea —I had an entire textbook online, as a shared resource for both the student and the teacher.

Too Good to Be True

A short time after starting to use this innovative online study guide, students began showing up with binders that were getting bulkier by the week. I was also getting complaints from the Cornell central computer services office informing me that my students were tying up all the network printers. It was clear the students were printing the entire course website a bit at a time, several hundred pages in all. At that point, I felt I was back at square one. The only difference was that I now had this complete hypertext-linked textbook online. It was not only available to my students, but because it was now on the Worldwide Web, it was available to anybody, anywhere, anytime.

To solve the printing problem, I worked with the campus bookstore to see if they could print the entire course website and bind it in such a way that they could offer it at a low cost. They agreed and it worked that way for several years. The campus bookstore was the sole provider of the text hardcopy and I was the sole provider of the Web content. Meanwhile, I was being contacted by Professors and students from around the world wanting a hardcopy of different sections of the course. I referred them to the bookstore where they could order a hardcopy of what they wanted. I had to invest a lot of time in this coordination activity and realized I had a new problem. I was actually becoming an independent publisher, a terrible use of my time.

Enter Atomic Dog

I looked at several traditional textbook publishers and was disappointed by their old-fashioned approaches. That’s when Atomic Dog Publishing (www.atomicdog.com) and I discovered each other, in late 2000/early 2001, when they were just getting started. It was clear they were going to be a different kind of publishing company. They had many innovative ideas, not the least of which was the idea of providing the options of an Internet version and/or a textbook version. Subsequently, all my materials became available from Atomic Dog in both online and bound formats as The Research Methods Knowledge Base. I immediately stopped publishing through the campus bookstore and directed anybody who wanted a hardcopy to the Atomic Dog website.

Vision Fulfilled

This effort has evolved into a college textbook which can be published on its own. Atomic Dog enables you to not only publish the textbook, but lets you do it in a fashion that is interactive and much more value oriented to the students and the teachers as well. It can be done at a very low cost and will even help the environment by saving some trees. And, it has removed me from the daily activities of a publishing business, allowing me to spend more of my time pursuing what I do well — teaching.

And the Next Vision Is…

Textbooks of the future should be even smaller, more customized and globalized. Professors should be able go to the Web, look at a list of contents, click off the sections they want, indicate what order they want them in and create their own tailored, personalized textbook in any major language they need. Students should then be able to interact with this text on the Web, access it in a uniquely customized printed form, or both. This kind of vision requires an innovative and creative publisher. Traditional publishers move too slowly and are too limited by the old-fashioned stereotypical textbook model. Newer, more agile publishers like Atomic Dog are where these textbook innovations are likely to start. They are motivated to understand the needs of the Professors and students, and are innovative enough to react to those needs. And beyond this, they are willing to try new things and use technology in new and different ways, helping make the latest vision of textbook publishing a reality.


Figure 1: Atomic Dog is delivering the future of college textbooks by combining the highest quality content with the latest technology and innovation.

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