The textbook is often characterised as a relic – an anachronism – that, like the face to face lecture, is well past its used-by date. Is it the case that the “golden book period” for textbooks is over or is talk of their demise premature? I’ll save for another time why a lecture room occupied by students has more than an edge over on-line alternatives. But, for now, what is so good about textbooks?

Longevity: textbooks last. Have you ever searched for a promising on-line learning resource (or perhaps one you have already used), only to be faced with the screen message “not found” (or something similar)? In contrast to on-line resources, the life expectancy of a textbook (suitably revised) can be decades.

Rigour: a textbook proposal, and sometimes the chapters as they are written, are reviewed by discipline experts with education credentials. This is perhaps not as rigorous a process as the refereeing of a research paper, but it does represent a degree of quality control often found wanting in on-line offerings.

Inspiration: the best textbooks inspire. They become enduring, dependable and trustworthy companions. An example from my discipline is the Feynman Lectures on Physics, which have inspired many students (and not a few academics), since around 1963.

Ubiquitous support: a good textbook represents a coherent, lucid and authoritative distillation of years of consideration by the author(s) of (let’s not shy away from the phrase) discipline-focussed content, sympathetically translated and interpreted for a target audience. It can (and often does in science) form the backbone to a course: a reliable support that accompanies the student from the beginning to the end of the course.

The need to curate learning content and promote student-content interactions that support student learning don’t necessarily mean that we should supplant good textbooks with on-line learning resources. The answer is more likely increased accessibility of print texts as digital e-texts, available more equitably and, if possible, as Open Educational Resources (OER).


Les Kirkup is a visiting professor at the University of Technology Sydney. He was awarded a National Teaching Fellowship in 2011 and the Education Medal of the Australian Institute of Physics in 2014.

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