Back in 1998 when the Internet was still in its infancy and connectivity was via a dial up modem that produced a cacophony of buzzes and tweets every time you set it to work, I came up with the idea of producing a whole series of Web-based language courses based on texts, audio files and interactive exercises. (There was no video available on the Internet in those days and one expert I consulted laughed out loud at the idea that it might one day be possible to stream video online).
This idea was the genesis of a company called Net Languages, which may have been the world’s very first virtual language school.
When we launched Net Languages I confidently predicted that these new Web-based courses would swiftly bring about the demise of paper-based course books. It seemed patently obvious: paper-based textbooks were so 19th century in approach. Printed words just lay there on the page, as inanimate as carvings on a rock. Of course they could still be instructive; students could read the words, look at the pictures, and tackle a variety of different exercises (using some form of archaic writing implement), but none of these paper-based activities could talk back to the students; they didn’t indicate what students had learnt or what they might have missed; they offered nothing approaching genuine, real-time interaction. What’s more, course books were impossible to update and improve quickly and easily, and they were generally limited to a hundred and twenty or so pages, allowing students and teachers to work their way through them during the standard amount of time allotted for in-school classes and homework.
Web-based courses, on the other hand, could provide students with truly interactive activities, not only indicating whether they had completed an exercise well or badly, but also giving them hints or explanations to help them learn from the experience and do better next time. Web-based courses could also be updated almost instantly, and they could contain much more content than could ever fit into a standard course book, allowing students and teachers to access as much material as they could wish for, including audio files and yes, eventually, video as well.
I felt certain that all the language teaching publishers would give in to the inevitable and substitute paper for interactive, Web-based materials as soon as they possibly could. But while a number of the big boys invested significant amounts developing Web-based content, none of them abandoned their course books. It was invariably a question of Web-based content plus course books, rather than Web-based content instead of course books.
The obvious explanation back in the early 2000s was that not enough people had access to computers and the Internet to make Web-based courses a universally viable and affordable option. Although not necessarily cheap, course books were certainly cheaper than personal computers, and that seemed likely to ensure their durability.
Then tablet computers arrived and the cost of some of the cheaper models was less than the cost of buying half a dozen course books. Tablets could in fact store many hundreds of books, and they also weighed significantly less than course books, meaning we would no longer have to witness lines of young children bent double as they trudged off to school with several kilos of paper stuffed into their backpacks.
But course books even managed to survive the threat that tablet computers posed. Were tablets simply too challenging to use? They were certainly less likely to survive being dropped on the floor then a course book. Or was it rather that the Internet still remained inaccessible to a large proportion of students both in school and at home?
Starting in March 2020 the Covid pandemic forced schools everywhere to close and students were suddenly obliged to study online (assuming they had the means to do so). But even in these extreme circumstances course books managed to hold their own. Teachers may have supplemented course books with Power Points, quizzes, audios and videos, but most students were still expected to work through their course book remotely, just as they would have done if they’d been in school.
The environmental cost of producing the paper, printing and then shipping course books also deserves a mention. I remember reading somewhere (online) that it takes around 20 litres of water to manufacture one A4 sheet of paper. That equates to well over 2,000 litres for the average course book, never mind the energy and transport costs involved. Of course online teaching resources also have an environmental impact; think of all those huge data centres each consuming enough power to light up a small town. But compared to course books, the environmental impact of digital resources is minimal, a short footnote at the bottom of the page.
So what is the explanation for the astounding durability of course books for language learners? What is their lasting appeal, even in societies where the Internet is almost as readily accessible as electricity?
I have two theories which may go some way to providing an explanation.
- Publishers make enough money from the sale of course books to want to keep producing and promoting them. Of course there are still large sections of the global population that don’t have ready access to the Internet, and that therefore rely on paper-based resources, but would publishers make a return on their sizeable investments if they limited sales to these communities? Given that these communities are often in the poorest parts of the world, it seems unlikely. A more likely explanation for the determination of publishers to carry on printing is that course books are the geese that have laid barrel loads of golden eggs for decades. Why ring their super productive necks now?
- Both students and teachers still like to have something tangible to hold, to scribble in, to keep, and to refer to. I must admit that I have never been a convert to digital literature, even though it makes lots of sense to download and read a book on a digital device. I just prefer handling and then keeping most of the books I read, even though I may never open them again one I’ve finished them. This doesn’t appear to be a generational thing either as my teenage daughter is also intent on building her own paper-based library.
So will course books always be with us? If not always, they’ll probably outlast me.
What of Net Languages I hear you ask? Well, thanks to the contribution of a great many people, including such ELT heavyweights as Scott Thornbury and Gavin Dudeney, Net Languages survived its infancy and is still holding its own against an increasing number of new Web-based language course providers. Many Net Languages courses are designed to substitute course books completely, but some, especially those for younger learners, are designed rather to supplement printed materials. C’est la vie.