Slice of nice: Nov. 10, 2011

Story by Taylor Kuether

What they’re cooking up:
What if you didn’t have to lug around the as-big-as-you-are textbook when you know you’re only going to use about three of the 100 chapters? With Richard Baranuik’s idea, a professor at Rice University in Houston, Texas, you wouldn’t have to. (Watch the video of Baranuik explaining his idea here)

With his invention, an interactive website called “Connexions,” students and teachers alike can mix and match pieces of textbooks, articles, and scholarly journals to create a textbook entirely customized to their needs. And the online versions of the books and articles used to create the books are completely free to anyone in the world with an internet connection.

Baranuik says books “can be built and rebuilt so that every individual can have the perfect textbook for their learning needs.” Sounds pretty appealing, right? For the most part, I agree, but it’s important not to cut out knowledge we need.

How it can be homemade:
Mix and match textbooks could be a good idea if used to educate more concisely, rather than being used to simply eliminate the boring stuff. But I worry that eliminating that “boring stuff” may not lead to better textbooks; it could foster apathy and create gaps in the body of knowledge we’re working to create.

Essentially, distilling textbooks down only to what students want to learn about is as bad as history textbooks that exclude minority roles in the making of history. The people recording the events, primarily white males, selected (or rather, mixed and matched) only what they wanted to include in their recounts, and today we lack some important views and undoubtedly some key details of our history because of it. I’d hope that Mix-and-Match Textbooks has a different outcome.

If done right, such textbooks could streamline our educations to only the topics pertinent to the class and the topics that students feel they’ll benefit from the most. The key, simply, is balance.