If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.



The Future Of Textbooks

ACS Meeting News: Technology provides more options, but print textbooks will remain, at least for now

by Celia Henry Arnaud
September 27, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 39

Credit: Used With Permission
Students have many options for reading textbooks.
Credit: Used With Permission
Students have many options for reading textbooks.

A backbreaking load of textbooks is one of the hallmarks of science students. But for how much longer will that be true? Improvements in technology could eventually pull those heavy conventional textbooks out of students’ backpacks, but textbooks as we know them probably won’t disappear anytime soon. Publishers, authors, and professors discussed the future of chemistry textbooks in a symposium sponsored by the Division of Chemical Education at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Boston last month.

Textbooks are one of those educational basics that both students and faculty love to hate. James Reeves, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, who co-organized the ACS session with Deborah Exton of the University of Oregon, enumerated the drawbacks of modern chemistry textbooks: They’re too big and too expensive, with too short a useful life. From many students’ perspectives, the books don’t offer enough value to justify their sometimes $200-plus price tags. And from professors’ perspectives, the typical three-year revision cycle forces them to switch editions too often.

Professors are looking for ways to lighten their students’ burden and simultaneously improve learning. Citing the “learning pyramid” developed by National Training Laboratories, in Bethel, Maine, Reeves pointed out that reading is second only to attending lectures on the list of the most ineffective ways to learn. Students are more likely to retain information when they are actively engaged. Therefore, he said, technology must be interactive.

Credit: Chemical Education Digital Library
Web-based books allow interactive media such as Jmol, a Java viewer for three-dimensional chemical models, to be embedded in the text.
Credit: Chemical Education Digital Library
Web-based books allow interactive media such as Jmol, a Java viewer for three-dimensional chemical models, to be embedded in the text.

Textbook publishers realize that they need to adapt to remain relevant. Kent Peterson, vice president for strategic sales management at McGraw-Hill Higher Education, described the choices that publishers must make about textbooks. In the past, such choices mostly involved picking the right author and ensuring accuracy of content in a printed book. As technology has changed, format has grown in importance as yet another issue to consider.

In particular, digital materials that used to be strictly value-added extras have become increasingly integral to the basic package, Peterson said. Accordingly, authors have become more involved in the development of these materials, which publishers once commissioned from other people.

Another challenge for textbook publishers is the proliferation of alternative distribution channels, Peterson said. He indicated that the supply side of the business is changing dramatically. No longer are students a captive audience for the campus bookstore. They can choose between multiple online retailers, including some that rent books to students. In fact, he noted that rentals will hasten the move to all-digital textbooks. “We have to make sure the digital platforms are compelling,” he said.

John C. Kotz, an emeritus chemistry professor at the State University of New York, Oneonta, and author of a leading general chemistry text, agreed with Peterson that the current model necessitates constant revision of books and noted that new editions focus on new pedagogy and the integration of technological innovations. He predicted that a hybrid combining simpler text with cutting-edge technology will dominate the next generation of chemistry “textbooks.”

Textbooks of the future will also reflect new curricula, such as a course being developed by Michael W. Klymkowsky of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Melanie M. Cooper of Clemson University. They are collaborating on a curriculum called Chemistry, Life, the Universe & Everything (CLUE) that focuses on conceptual understanding rather than memorization of facts (C&EN, Sept. 13, page 48).

The CLUE curricular materials include a text and separate websites for students and instructors. The book, intended to be less than half the length of conventional textbooks, follows a narrative thread that asks how students can move from an understanding of atomic structure to an understanding of complex structures, such as biological systems. The developers are explicitly addressing the fact that much of what is taught in chemistry is counterintuitive, Klymkowsky said. The pedagogical approach is meant to elicit student thinking about concepts and to make them consider and explain their assumptions. Based on research into student thinking about the underlying concepts and skills needed to master chemistry, it will rely heavily on Web-based tools that will respond to students.

Robert A. Pribush, a chemistry professor at Butler University, in Indianapolis, recently asked his students to rate and rank the importance of a list of 20 items involved in chemistry courses. The students’ top-ranked item was online graded homework assignments with immediate feedback. The instructor and in-class lecture ranked second and third. And the textbook was farther down the list but still in the top half, at number eight. Pribush interpreted the results to mean that students want immediate assessment and immediate help but still appreciate a well-written textbook.

Professors who prefer to ditch conventional books have several options. These include assembling materials they have prepared themselves or taking advantage of materials available on the Internet.

Professors at the University of Detroit Mercy eliminated commercial textbooks for their general and organic chemistry students last year, according to department chairman Mark A. Benvenuto, who gave a tag-team presentation during the national meeting symposium with three of his colleagues. Instead, for general chemistry the Detroit Mercy instructors now use a “house textbook” based on lecture notes, said Jonathan E. Stevens. A key component for their course on organic chemistry is an eight-page list of “professor-approved links” to online homework problems and other online information, said David M. Bartley, one of the presenters. They have been surprised that some students aren’t as tech-savvy as was assumed. For instance, they find that some students still want a traditional hardback textbook.

If professors don’t want to assemble their own textbook, they can use online materials. Beatrice Botch, a chemistry professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, described how professors are using one such Web-based resource, which goes by the name of OWL, or Online Web Learning.

OWL is an online homework system that consists of “homework questions, stepwise tutorials, and gradable simulations,” Botch said. The developers of OWL—professors at both UMass Amherst and SUNY Oneonta—are currently expanding the platform into a general chemistry curriculum that fully integrates homework problems with text. A preliminary book that interweaves narrative, concept exploration, and homework assignments has been used with two classes.

Botch shared some of her experiences using the online textbook. Graded “quick check” questions interspersed with the text were a good way to encourage students to read the material, she said. Without such questions, most students hunted for assigned material and skipped everything else, she said. On average, students needed six to seven hours to finish a unit, she added.

Several speakers mentioned wikis—websites with interlinked pages written and edited by multiple people—as a potential replacement for standard textbooks. However, they also noted that because of the collaborative way in which wikis are written and edited, achieving a consistent voice and style can be difficult. One solution, proposed by Justin Shorb, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is to use as the basis for a wiki a previously written textbook copyrighted by its authors, who had released it to the public domain. Shorb described ChemPaths, an online student portal that connects students to an online text and a variety of related media. ChemPaths, a project of the Chemical Education Digital Library, is available at no cost to students and institutions.

Michael J. Kenney, a chemistry professor and self-proclaimed “faculty technology evangelist” at Case Western Reserve University, described his experience as part of a seven-university study of educational uses of’s Kindle DX. At Case Western, 40 engineering students received Kindles with the class text preloaded.

As might be expected, the students accepted the technology to varying degrees. The 40 students broke down evenly into three categories (one student dropped out of the study), Kenney said. The “completely engaged” students plan to buy e-textbooks in the future. A group of more “casual users” enjoyed using the devices for pleasure reading rather than coursework. The final group of “disengaged users” has no plans to use the device in the future. Some of the problems might have been avoided with a better orientation to the device, Kenney said. He plans to continue offering students the option of using e-readers, but he intends to let the students who want them choose which electronic device they use, such as the Kindle or Apple’s iPad.

Although more professors and students are turning to electronic textbooks, there’s no reason to assume that the disappearance of textbooks is imminent. Even technology evangelist Kenney doesn’t think printed textbooks should completely disappear, because some students are more comfortable with the more familiar technology.

Even students who like e-readers still like textbooks as well. Pribush cited a study in which 40% of students said they were likely to switch from print to an e-reader, but 70% said they still preferred print when cost was not a factor. “Tomorrow’s textbook will be a hybrid,” Pribush said. It “will not be one size but will be flexible enough to accommodate different styles.”


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.