The huge advantage of putting book reviews on a personal blog is that my reviews can go off wildly at huge tangents and people will still appreciate them. That would never happen if I were to write on Amazon or Goodreads.
You also don’t get a “stat counter” on Amazon or Goodreads.
This site had its 30,000th visitor last week. Each new book review I write brings at least one new subscriber (263 and counting!)
Here’s we go…
Dated blueprint for VCE Chemistry textbooks.
416 pages, ★★★★
Comparing textbooks is dull. Given that textbooks written for the VCE syllabus in particular are bound to be nearly identical in content, reviewing this book in the same way I reviewed the last one (Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2) seemed pointless.
Instead, I’m going to compare all the main textbooks that I’ve read. I’ve bought some, borrowed some, pirated some and skimmed through a few others in bookstores.
Textbooks differ in three main ways: popularity, design, and digital “swag”, and these are the three aspects that I care about most when choosing my textbooks.
The best thing about Heinemann Chemistry 1 is its local feel. I recognise most of the pictures in this book, which isn’t the case with Nelson Chemistry. Monash University (yay!) is mentioned many times, and so is its particle accelerator, the Synchrotron. Reading it, I feel proud that such a high-quality textbook was been made for such a small audience (Victoria has a population of only 5.7 million); and I also feel proud of Victoria’s significant contributions to science despite its relatively short history as a state (the colony was only established in 1851).
However, Heinemann Chemistry 1 looks really dated. The body text is upstaged by ostentatious background images—yes, images—of tab dividers, cork-board pins, and pointless squares and lines. Don’t get me wrong: the layout looks good, but in design terms, it also begs for an update. It needs to be brought into line with the “clean, minimalist” design fad of the last few years if students are going enjoy reading it.
Heinemann provides PDF versions of its textbooks to all those who purchase a physical copy, which is awesome. This allows me to keep PDFs of all my Heinemann textbooks on all my devices so I’ve always got VCE Chemistry, Physics and Maths information in my pocket (and in my briefcase, on my desk, and even in the car). Searching the PDFs is quicker than looking through the index in the physical copy. The PDF version is a huge bonus that most publishers do not provide, and students seem to love it, too.
The Heinemann CD also includes something called “Exam Café”: a Flash-based software package that allows you to revise (just a little bit) and watch the occasional low-resolution video while your CD drive makes noises like a power drill. To get any use out of it, you’ll have to navigate through a heavily skeuomorphic interface that reminds me of Monkey Island, or the menu screen in Driver. Flash-based, it feels alien on Mac and PC. Like most students, I gave up on the “Exam Café” CD after just a few minutes. I have never heard “Exam Café” mentioned in schools, and never intend to use it myself, despite the textbook being full of references to it.
But it’s not just Heinemann Chemistry 1 that needs a revamp: it’s the entire textbook publishing industry that needs a digital shake-up, too.
This is because many students are repelled by dated textbooks. Students want information that’s instant, customisable, social, digital, and interactive, and the textbooks of 2013 are none of those things.
So students don’t use the textbook when they need information—they use Google instead, which usually directs them to unreliable sites such as Ask.com or Yahoo Answers. (Students avoid Wikipedia, even though it’s much better than Yahoo Answers, because they’ve been told that Wikipedia is unreliable!) Google is their primary source of information, and they use the PDF textbook only when they have to locate the homework questions at the end of each chapter. They avoid the textbook’s key feature—the body text—because reading PDFs on a screen is so 2010. This begs the question: How can publishers make digital textbooks instant, customisable, social, digital, and interactive as to make students want to read them again?
Switching to iOS apps or iBooks on an iPad solves most of these problems. While PDFs are searchable, which is useful, they are also static and unresponsive to look at, and are no longer a suitable choice for making digital books. Among the major publishers, Pearson Publishing is definitely leading the way digitally. Pearson Publishing has created standalone iBooks (sold for A$19.99 each in the iBookstore) that contain the videos, animations and interactive 3D graphics that that the class of 2014 has grown to expect. They’re sold separately from its printed textbooks and are being updated continually. All textbook publishers will be forced to follow suit eventually.
But there’s a lot of ground yet to cover. Students expect social media integration into everything. They want a textbook that updates your Facebook status when you’ve finished your homework. One that allows collaboration on homework projects and real-time shared annotations with classmates. They want one a book that contains up-to-date news stories and context-relevant tweets on some of the pages. They want books to update themselves via the App Store during the night. When will we get textbooks that track your learning progress with points, like an amalgamation of Kahn Academy and the Nike+ FuelBand…? When will publishers make a “KnowledgeBand” that tracks how much reading a student has done in a day? Why don’t digital textbooks include video tutorials like Richard Thornley? (They should!) Why don’t they have built-in forums that connect right to the pages in the book? Why can’t teachers edit copies of the book and vote each other’s edits up and down like Quora? If publishers could accomplish all of this and kill all the skeuomorphism at the same time, making the app visually really, really simple, then I’d finally have my perfect, five-star textbook.
Above: this Vox pop by DynamicBooks says it well. I wish they did free trials…
Strictly in terms of text content, I still prefer Heinemann Chemistry 1 over any other textbook out there. I’m therefore happy to use Heinemann Chemistry 1 as my primary textbook and Nelson Chemistry VCE Units 1 & 2 as my secondary source for the superior diagrams, questions and alternative explanations it contains. While Nelson is more visually-pleasing (but still not perfect), Heinemann Chemistry 1 seems more ubiquitous in Victoria and is therefore a better investment for a VCE teacher.
In short, there’s no perfect textbook. I’m excited about the digital textbooks that I’ll see entering the classroom in years to come. ★★★★