Speaking recently to university colleagues in southern Africa I heard their wish for teaching materials that, for them, would change everything. If only there could be a way for their students, who cannot afford even greatly discounted Euro-American textbooks, to have access to low cost, state-of-the-art textbooks with culturally relevant examples.
For students in Africa and around the world, this utopian world may in the next decade become the real world, thanks to:
• Interactive textbooks: Various publishers are developing web-based interactive e-books with links to tutorials, simulations, quizzes, animations, virtual labs, discussion boards, and video clips. (These are not yesterday’s e-textbooks.)
• Customizability: Instructors, and regional instructor networks, will be able to rearrange the content, delete unwanted material, and add (or link to) materials pertinent to their students' worlds and their own course goals.
• Affordability: In the North American context, students will pay for course access tied to their names. With no hard copy book production and shipping, and no used books, publishers will stay afloat with a much smaller fee paid by many more students, or via a site license. For courses in economically impoverished regions, benevolent publishers could make access available for very low cost per student.
• Student accountability: Instructors will track their students’ engagement in advance of class sessions, thus freeing more class time for discussion.
• Expanding broadband access: Thanks partly to a joint foundation initiative by Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, and others, “information technologies and connectivity to the Internet” are coming to African universities. As yet, access is limited and expensive. But with increased bandwidth and the prospect of inexpensive, wireless personal reading devices, everything may change.
This is not pie in the sky. African researchers are eager to explore the effectiveness of the new interactive content when it becomes accessible to their students. The hope is that such will combine the strengths of existing texts?which are comprehensive, expertly reviewed, painstakingly edited, attractively packaged, and supported with teaching aids?at reduced cost and with the possibility of locally adapted illustrations and content.
Textbooks are sometimes faulted for being biased, dated, or outrageously expensive. But say this much for them, whether in traditional book or new web-based formats: By making the same information available to rich and poor students at rich and poor schools in rich and poor countries, they are egalitarian. They flatten the world. And as James Madison noted in 1825, “the advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.