I’m taking another professional development course this summer. As in a previous year, there is no textbook. I must say I am delighted that more instructors seem to be thinking beyond the buy-a-textbook model. My one etextbook experience was abysmal, and in the years since, I’ve seen much virtual ink spilled on the question of how to improve them.

Well, maybe the answer is, ‘We don’t improve etextbooks. We replace them with something else.’

In this case, that ‘something else’ is digital access to a library database. It’s almost like Kindle Unlimited for academic articles, in a way. In the Kindle Unlimited model, I can access every byte of the available library, as much as I want to, while I am paying. So it is with Proquest, the library database my university is using. For the duration of the course—while I am paying, in other words—I can get into the whole thing. When I stop paying, I stop accessing.

When articles and book excerpts replace textbook chapters

The textbook chapters, thus, have been replaced by articles and excerpts which are available as part of whatever subscriptions or services the university has subscribed to as part of their library package. The 20-page course syllabus has various tasks we must participate in, most of which involve referencing at least a few suggested readings. These are listed by title, author and Proquest reference code. I go to the library website, log in with my student number and password, and paste the code number from the syllabus PDF into the search bar. Boom, there it is. A few of the tasks also involve us performing research on our own. We can use the library database for these tasks as well, searching by subject or keyword.

I think this is a surprisingly elegant model. Now that I’m doing my ‘work’ on a proper computer instead of on a tablet, it doesn’t bother me to have multiple browser tabs open. It’s easy to fire up the course message board, open a second tab and load the library database. I like not having to buy a paper textbook, and not having to be ripped off by an over-priced and DRM-hobbled digital effort to copy one. I feel that we are getting more current information by not limiting ourselves to one book source, and since these are not free articles we’re using—the university pays for its various subscriptions—nobody is getting cheated out of their fair due here. As long as I am a student, I can use the school’s database. When the course ends, so too does my access. That’s fair.

Inferior experience

So, to the question of ‘how can digital textbooks me improved?’ let me offer the answer: they can’t be. They are an inferior experience and probably always will be. But there is no law that says every course must have a textbook, either. Maybe instead of wringing our hands over how to improve the textbook as a tool, we should be exploring other tools and how they might be as, or more, beneficial.

Image credit: Here.