We were recently asked why we sometimes use old out of print textbooks for some of our courses. It was a simple question, genuinely asked and it prompted me to mull things over and make some notes to explain out thinking better. Those notes morphed into an email and now into a blog post.

Some years back, as a staff, we had a discussion about our continued use of books within NSWLearning. It was in the early noughties; some years before, Peter Kindersley, of Dorling Kindersley fame, had expressed the opinion that books – at least for reference purposes, would eventually disappear. It made sense for us to have the discussion within NSW, in part because as an online provider of curriculum, we knew that there were alternative online sources that our students could use to study. We were also acutely aware that publishers enthusiasm for frequent new editions of textbooks was a real issue for us – requiring us to rewrite courses far more often that we felt was necessary.

So, we had the discussion about books and came to the conclusion that books – physical books – were valuable and that it was important that students experienced the process of learning using actual books, in addition to PowerPoints, web sites and YouTube videos. This wasn’t a vote for nostalgia – in my opinion, it was based upon sound educational thinking. It is interesting that recent years have seen a similar debate taking place within conventional schools here in the UK with decisions often heading in the opposite direction. Perhaps in another blog post, we can explore some of our thinking on this issue, but for the moment, perhaps it is sufficient to say that we felt that young people needed to acquire the skillset to work with books.

We have never revisited this discussion as a staff. The decision was made and that was the end of it. However, having come to the decision that books were valuable, we also, almost accidentally, arrived at the conclusion that new versions of books are not always better than the old versions that they replaced. This might appear obvious to some, but what surprised us was the extent to which new books are sometimes inferior to the ones that they replace.

We found that new books often contained far less text than older books. This is particularly the case in subjects where content is important – such as history, geography and science. As publishers try to produce the single edition that can be used across all ability ranges, they reduce the amount of reading on each page and also simplify the language structure. In addition, modern textbooks are image rich. The reduction in text has been accompanied by an increase in visuals.

None of this a bad thing, particularly when students in a classroom can be given additional resources targeted at their ability. And in fact, for many students these changes make the books more accessible and learning more stimulating.

However, for us at NSWLearning, these changes sometimes pose a challenge. New books simply do not provide enough content by way of explanation and detail to enable our online learners to master the topics that they are studying. For our students, we have learnt that they need lots of content, well written and clearly illustrated. Older textbooks often provide this, and this is why we often persist with out of print books when new editions or completely new books are available.