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Textbooks are a threat to Kenya's economy, but ...

By XN Iraki | July 26th 2016
The post modern library at Kenyatta University that was built during Prof Olive Mugenda's tenure. Students see the mastery of textbooks as a path to progress through the passing exams and the benefits that go with this. (PHOTO: KAMAU MAICHUHIE/ STANDARD)

Textbooks are the main source of knowledge for students, from primary school all the way to university.

They package knowledge in an accessible way. They are time honoured, with every generation of students becoming a slave to a few textbooks and their contents. The digital age has not diminished the popularity of these books, which have just migrated to cyberspace.

Students see the mastery of textbooks as a path to progress through the passing exams and the benefits that go with this. It is time we re-examined textbooks. Could they be a threat to our economy?

First, textbooks are generally expensive. That keeps lots of knowledge away from citizens. Some cost as much as Sh20,000, particularly in professional fields or if the book is rare.

In classrooms, textbooks are rare. This has spawned a thriving photocopying industry. Has anyone been taken to court for photocopying a book? It seems you are better off buying a photocopier than writing a book in Kenya.

The threat posed by textbooks goes beyond inaccessibility and costs. Textbooks are often outdated. By the time a textbook is written and published, a lot of new knowledge has been generated. Textbooks are rarely the source of cutting-edge ideas that can earn you lots of money. They can be a good source of background information and a starting point in research.

Textbooks encourage uniformity of thought, with generations of students getting the same knowledge. This could be a threat to creativity, which is the spark behind innovation and entrepreneurship.

In developed countries, textbooks are updated regularly to ensure the most current ideas are incorporated. The price also goes up. How many of us would be willing to buy newer editions at higher prices? The use of online platforms and digital editions ensures books are easily updated or linked to real-life cases.

Knowledge economy

Most textbooks are written for specific audiences and may not be relevant in new contexts. Publishers often produce books for specific markets, with locally relevant scenarios. An American textbook, for instance, uses dollars and other terms that might be unfamiliar to Kenyan students.

Some have argued that textbooks are like fast food — tasty but not nutritious. The cutting-edge ideas are found in journals, which are not as accessible as books and are often highly technical and complex. Greater ideas are not even written; talk to people .…

Enough lamentation, where do we go from here?

There is no doubt that we all live in the knowledge economy. But the ingredients of such an economy are missing. There is too much focus on the packaging of knowledge, but not on its generation. How many publishers in Kenya sponsor research geared towards writing textbooks?

Soon, students will have laptops. Lots of publishers see such gadgets as a threat. If we can put all the textbooks learners buy every year into that small gadget, lots of publishers would be run out the market.

The truth is that digitisation offers them a lifeline. They can update their books more often and reach a wider audience. The books they publish can be enriched with video, sound and animation, making them more user friendly. The era of the traditional textbook seems about to end.

The truth

Some argue persuasively that we need more local content in our textbooks. Who will develop it? What are the incentives? Incidentally, the Commission for University Education has incentivised writing by giving authors lots of points in promotion criteria. Will this spawn a new era of textbook writing by local scholars?

The current expansion in higher education in Kenya will only pay dividends if students get the right skills, knowledge and attitudes. Where will this knowledge be found? Who will generate it?

The knowledge industry is characterised by easy entry and exit, and information asymmetry. The consumers of knowledge are not as informed as the suppliers, publishers and writers. Who will ensure the consumers (students) get the right knowledge? Can the Government ensure books are up to date?

Consuming old, tired ideas blunts the competitive edge of the nation.

In most countries, governments decide on what children should study in their early years, particularly in primary and high school. Education is one area where the Government has remained dominant, including deciding what you should study and even examining you. In higher levels, there is more flexibility.

Some parents opt out of Government-funded systems to private education, but that does not settle the question of content and textbooks. As we open more universities, questions on how knowledge is packaged will remain.

Textbooks are like containers in the ship industry. While containers are of specific dimensions, what they contain matters most. Are textbooks the best containers? Is their time up? What is the best replacement?

The writer is senior lecturer, University of Nairobi. [email protected]

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