Thoughts on an art history e-textbook

Must we remain bound, even through metaphor, to the print textbook as a model?

The Next Generation Learning Challenges blog asked, “What makes an e-textbook work?” and last night, I responded with the following,

This important question may need a little rephrasing. The textbook is of course not a given, but rather, the result of a particular technology and a reflection of the needs and interests of a specific historical moment. The textbook promised the comprehensive treatment of its subject, accuracy, and a single, coherent, sequential structure.

The web has shown that these premises are limited and our students seem to know this. Perhaps this is because in their experience knowledge seems more expansive, intricate, dynamic, and cumulative and the very notion that a bound and static textbook that purports to be comprehensive is for them, inherently suspect. Diderot’s noble belief that his great Encyclopédie could contain the full extent of “each and every branch of human knowledge” was beautiful and wildly ambitious, but it was an expression of the mid-18th century Enlightenment.

Must we remain bound, even through metaphor, to the print textbook as a model? The economics of print technology required standardized editions that fail to reflect the fluidity of knowledge. We now have an incredible opportunity to invent an entirely new means with which to introduce and interact with a given discipline. Let’s leave the metaphor of the textbook behind us. Instead, open, networked learning should aggregate and respond to discovery and analysis in real time while drawing relevant materials from resources across a spectrum of disciplines. Further, we can include many more voices and create much more engaging models for learning.

Dr. Beth Harris and I created, a conversation-based multimedia art history web-book to begin to do exactly this.

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One Comment

  1. Thanks for your comment, Steven.


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