The Chronicle recently pushed out a number of articles on the current state of the college textbook. One of these articles, The Object Formerly Known as the Textbook, begins by acknowledging the changing nature of the textbook,  as not simply a repackaging of content into a new, digital new format (i.e. e-text), but as a new form of media altogether. Promising. But rather than exploring the potential of the open web and social media  to redefine the college course as something more than content, or mentioning platforms like PLEs, PLNs, and wikis, or tools like RSS aggregators, the article instead focuses on big P publisher’s interpretation of the modern textbook, as so-called “personalized learning experiences,” or a “course in a box”,  forms that essentially add a layer of interactive software overtop the same old content (albeit digital). It’s like tapping out a message in Morse code over the telephone.

“It’s not a textbook, it is an entire course,” says Jean Wisuri, director of distance education at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, describing a product called Course360, from Cengage Learning. “It has activities built right into the textbook itself.” A professor could essentially rely on a Course360 title as the full curriculum in an online course, letting students loose in the system and having them teach themselves. The Course360 titles connect to the university’s learning-management system, linking them directly into an institution’s existing virtual classroom.” Also: It slices! It dices! It juliennes!

Now, rather than simply relying on publishers to produce and polish a significant piece of a course curriculum–the textbook–publishers are now developing and delivering the entire curriculum, as well as creating assignments and giving the tests. When we peered into the future a few years ago and considered the possible outcome of the explosion of web-based technologies, the embrace of social media, and the promise of distance learning, is this what we imagined? The same pedagogy, only with a few bells and whistles added on and an even larger role for publishers?

The most distressing quote from the article that I think  captures the current reality that, for whatever the reason–budget cuts, impossible teaching loads, institutional culture–many post-secondary faculty are abdicating educational control of their courses to commercial vendors and publishers, like Pearson, is this one:

Mr. Finegold emphasizes that this doesn’t mean professors have to choose books from Pearson. But in the courses for which professors do adopt Pearson textbooks, that will represent an unusually deep role for a publisher—helping to build the virtual classroom, the curriculum, and the course materials. And that raises the question of why students need the university at all, if the publisher is the one doing much of the teaching. <emphasis mine>

I’m afraid Pearson already knows the answer to that question.