Is the textbook obsolete?

Peter Lindenfeld and Suzanne White Brahmia

Not so long ago it was the teacher who was said to be obsolete. What was needed, we were told, was a "resource person", to answer questions and to supply information. Today, with the Internet, even that function is no longer necessary. Interestingly, it turned out that the students wanted and needed the guidance, the schedule, the pace, and the insights of the teacher.

How about the textbook? Doesn't the Internet supply all the information, perhaps to be supplemented by handouts with readings and problems that can be adjusted to fit each teacher's and each course's needs? Again, perhaps surprisingly, the much maligned textbook remains the anchor of just about every introductory physics course. The reasons for their staying power, are, however, likely to be different for the teachers and the book.

The textbook remains central to most courses in the face of the fact that the 'normal' text has not changed significantly in decades. It comes in different versions with minor differences. It has 1000 to 1500 pages, and you can easily guess the generic table of contents. It is not entirely a caricature to say that students don't read it, and professors look only at the end-of-chapter problems to see which ones should be assigned. In fact, surveys conducted at the University of Colorado show that this seems to be so for the majority of students.1

Perhaps that is not completely the fault of the audience. Is the survival of the book (unlike that of the teacher) primarily the result of tradition and inertia, rather than of its value as a tool for teaching and learning? Perhaps the writing and the presentation can be so vivid that the students will want to read what's there. Perhaps the pages don't have to open to dense mathematical derivations full of boxed and numbered equations.

This may be the time to look from scratch at the content and the organization of the text, and hence also of the course. Is it still appropriate to spend half the time and space on classical mechanics? And to leave everything that happened after the 1890s to a lump of 'modern physics' that gets less than prime-time attention at the end?

It's time for full disclosure: we have tried to act on these questions.1 We looked at each topic as if it were new. We have 367 pages of which about 100 are on mechanics. We eventually get to quantum mechanics, to which we have an unusually accessible and straightforward introduction that helps us to describe applications such as transistors and solar cells. We have about 50 examples and questions based on the PhET ("Physics Technology Education") simulations developed at the University of Colorado. "Guided-review" questions are keyed to the examples in the text, so that students are encouraged – almost forced – to go back to the examples and to the surrounding text.

This is not the place to describe our book in detail. (More can be seen on the book's website.2) It may be appropriate, however, to show that there can be a new and fresh approach to the introductory course and to encourage others to explore new possibilities. The editor of one of the large publishing houses said that physics textbook choices tend to be very conservative and traditional. Equally discouraging was a colleague's comment that "I hope to die using the textbook that I'm using now because I have no time to write new notes."

Perhaps it is time to go beyond the pattern that was already inadequate in the last half of the 20th century and to develop courses and books more appropriate for the present one.

1. Noah Podelefsky and Noah Finklestein, The Physics Teacher 44, 338 (2006).
2. Physics – The First Science, Peter Lindenfeld and Suzanne White Brahmia, Rutgers University Press 2011.

Peter Lindenfeld and Suzanne White Brahmia are at Rutgers University.

Disclaimer- The articles and opinion pieces found in this issue of the APS Forum on Education Newsletter are not peer refereed and represent solely the views of the authors and not necessarily the views of the APS.