Marry textbooks and computers and you may have a learning match made in heaven, says Harry Gensler
Do textbooks have a future? In 20 years from now will students use computerised materials instead of textbooks? I envisage a future where textbooks and computerised materials will typically work together to form an integrated "learning package".
Books have been around for a long time and will not disappear quickly. Books have many advantages. For one thing, they are highly portable; you can read them while sitting on a park bench or waiting for the train. They require no high-tech equipment or expertise. You can mark and lend them to your friends. Books are convenient.
But books have two main drawbacks. First, they are closed systems. You cannot click on them to bring up further information. While they can tell you about additional reading, you have to go to the library to get these additional texts. Second, books are not interactive. They cannot ask you questions, listen to your response, and then give you different feedback depending on your answer.
Computers can be open and interactive and can complement books. To give an example of how the two can enrich each other, let me talk about the website (http://www.routledge.com/routledge/philosophy/cip/ethics.htm) for my new textbook, Ethics: A Contemporary Introduction (Routledge, 1998). I chose to put the computerised materials for my book on a website (instead of on a floppy disk or a CD-Rom) because the website approach is inexpensive and allows for frequent updating of the materials.
If you visit this website, you will find a wealth of links that relate to the specific materials in my textbook. You are just a click away from things like a tutorial on Kohlberg's theory of moral development, the complete text of Mill's book on utilitarianism, a site that relates the golden rule, "Treat others as you want to be treated", to areas like world religions and business ethics, the arguments of the main pro-abortion and anti-abortion organisations, and sites that give many further links about ethics and other areas of philosophy. Teachers who use my textbook can bring up a sample course syllabus or a teacher's manual.
So the website opens my textbook to a wider world of ideas. And this world grows still wider as the links and individual sites are expanded.
In addition, the website has interactive exercises for each book chapter. An exercise begins with short summaries of key points, followed by about 30 multiple-choice questions. A typical multiple-choice question looks like this: " Ima Relativist" denies the existence of objective values. She does this because she thinks :
a. That there's no clear way to resolve moral differences
b. That morality is a product of culture
c. That cultures disagree widely about morality
d. All of the above
e. None of the above .
After picking one of the choices, a student is told whether the answer is correct and is given further feedback on the answer.
My sample question is about a view called "cultural relativism"- a view most beginning students find very attractive. To find out more about the view (and what is wrong with it), you can go to the website above and pick the exercise on "cultural relativism". As you do the exercise, you should get a clearer sense of how useful such exercises can be.
You can run my exercises on your web-browser or you can download the program for running the exercises in Windows or DOS on a stand-alone computer. The stand-alone program is somewhat more powerful, especially since it can record exercise scores to the student's disk. The website also has a program for processing student scores.
Students find the exercises an entertaining and useful study aid and they get rave reviews in student evaluations.
I see textbooks and computerised materials as ideally working together to form an integrated "learning package". The book presents ideas in the normal way; the computer gives further ways to study the ideas.
In my case, the computerised materials connect the textbook ideas to a wealth of further resources on the world wide web, and provide interactive exercises to clarify the student's understanding. This concept is fully workable and gives a powerful set of tools to promote student learning.
Harry Gensler is professor of philosophy, John Carroll University, Cleveland, Ohio, United States.