Should PR terminate text books?

image As governor of California, Arnie Schwarzenegger announces plans to replace traditional school textbooks in favour of “digital learning aids” – should PR follow suit?

On the one hand, I think this is a good idea – if it means tutors creating a series of digital resources, a playlist, of interesting and useful information from a wide variety of sources. 

Traditional textbooks are wasteful – should students seriously read these from front to back, or is their use more in terms of drawing out specific information and chapters?  image

Looking at a PR textbook, such as Tench & Yeoman’s edited “Exploring Public Relations” – you’ll find primarily a collection of concepts, theories and case studies drawn from a wide range of original and other edited sources. 

For tutors and students it is highly useful that the individual chapter authors have collated this information to give a solid introduction and understanding of relevant PR topics. 

I take a similar approach in putting together my Greenbanana study materials – but I am planning to make this resource work online better.  Using an interactive ebook format, I would like to add links to original and supplementary reading, video, podcasts, presentations, case studies, exercises, discussion forums, assignments and so on. 

Even having standard textbooks available in digital format has advantages such as searchability (no book contents list or index is every truly comprehensive) and portability (with an eReader you could store thousands of books).

But there are downsides – firstly a Google approach to studying is disjointed and takes information out of context.  It is a “cut and paste” approach to learning.  image

Without reading an entire chapter, paper or book, you can miss the point that an author is making.  I recently marked exam papers where one question gave a quote from Jacquie L’Etang regarding PR as an “ethical guardian”. Because few students had read the original work, most reported that the author proposed this concept, where she was actually questioning and critiquing it.

Also, “digital learning aids” may be of mixed quality – much of what can be found online lacks consideration, robust evidence or the benefit of an editor to review, check sources and remove errors.

Humans also need downtime from the technology and using printed sources is a good way of doing this.  You can read a book anywhere and rather than “cut and paste”, you are encouraged to think more when reading – whether that is stopping to reflect, or simply copying out or making notes.

image You cannot use eReaders or computers everywhere – and they inevitably experience technical problems.  They also lack the tangibility and permanence of books.  In George Orwell’s classic 1984, Winston Smith’s job involved rewriting historical documents to match the current official viewpoint (which changed daily).  With digital technology it is easy for information to be rewritten – and that is useful to avoid out of date facts.  But, a lot can be learned from how opinion and what was once fact changes over time – will we be able to access this when earlier editions are routinely deleted?

There are lots more arguments in favour of going digital – and more against. 

I have hundreds of PR books – which I find a pleasure to own, but also a nuisance as they take up space and are hard to reference.

As a tutor, I would love more of my students, especially the undergraduates, to read textbooks.  They are so lucky to have access to a University library – but they also can use ejournals bringing a lifetime of sources to their computer screen.

A world without books would be a poorer place image

Can a Kindle or iPod engage a child at bedtime in the same way as a classic book read aloud by a parent or a picture book the child learns to read by themselves?

Would I feel the same about inheriting a “digital learning aid” as I do about my grandfather’s leather bound books, which he saved up to buy over years?  Or my mum’s 1950s schoolbook which has her name carefully written inside the front cover?

PR probably can do without textbooks – but would what we gain be greater than what we lose? 

Published by

Heather Yaxley

Heather Yaxley is passionate about PR - teaching the CIPR qualifications, lecturing part-time at Bournemouth University and running the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA). I'm undertaking a PhD looking at Career Strategies in PR. I love sharing ideas and knowledge - connecting news and views by blogging on public relations and educational developments, especially relating to accelerated and active learning. I'm also a published author, qualified trainer and experienced consultant.

5 thoughts on “Should PR terminate text books?”

  1. You raise some very good points. A text is intended to enhance a student’s learning by offering key information and relevant material. I teach PR at Humber College in Toronto, Canada and one of our challenges is finding text with Canadian case studies. We’re experimenting next year by not using a writing text and will create learning resources using BlackBoard.

  2. You make a lot of great points; I especially agree with you on emphasizing substance over content. However, I wanted to push you on your world with out books scenario.

    You say that data is impermanent and lacks history. I disagree. Two projects in particular lead me to believe that data is a more robust system. Brewster Kahle’s work to create a digital library and ongoing archive of the Internet is incredibly important (http://www.ted.com/speakers/brewster_kahle.html). Having archived knowledge in multiple locations prevents the Library of Alexandria scenario. Further, each Wikipedia article maintains revision history since the inspection of the article.

    For example, you can see all changes to the 9/11 attacks article made since almost the actual attack. (http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=September_11_attacks&dir=prev&action=history)

    As you said, “A lot can be learned from how opinion and what was once fact changes over time.” Wikipedia allows everyone to do this on a very minute scale, which *I assume* will continue. I’m of the opinion we can not have too much archived data, so supporting these types of projects is important.

    As for engaging children with a kindle, you’re potentially dealing with a media over-saturation discussion, but again, substance over content should be emphasized.

    Sorry for the long tirade! I am a current PR student and believe my education is enhanced by digital resources.

    -jason

  3. Kalene – I agree and think that for case studies in particular, online can offer much more. Ideally, I’d like to see that include multi-media and even alternative perspectives. Case studies in textbooks often become mythologised with simplistic narratives. In reality, experience is more diverse, chaotic and often rationalised by hindsight. It is possible these days also to create living case studies as they happen – thanks to all the online media access.

    Jason – thanks for pointing out that data can have a legacy and prevents the nightmare scenario where the content of books are lost forever. Fortunately thanks to long-tail interest, we’re seeing republication (even if just online) of some books that were almost impossible – or at least expensive – to access a few years ago (eg Bernays original texts).

    My concern with online is that it will be revised and the original thinking will be lost – it will be vital that “editing” is traceable and also that there is motivation to do this and not just accept the latest word. Mind you, that’s not exclusive to online since I see far too many students just read the latest texts that report what someone else has said that an original author wrote – it is key to go back to primary sources. I find the 1984 Grunig & Hunt text, for example, so much more rewarding than reading what subsequent edited texts say that they said.

    I’m glad that your education is enhanced by digital resources – they do offer a substantial opportunity, especially when substantiated by some traditional approaches.

  4. Textbooks in PR are mostly a waste of time, except for one we are using at Notre Dame (Fremantle, Australia). For a start there’s too much theory in them. They are written by academics (no disrepect, as I am one). I mean, Jim Grunig took volumes to say that we need to talk to each other. We use a book by a practitioner, Kim Harrison. And yes, it does have some theory. Kim runs the PR units at a nearby university (Edith Cowan). I also teach business communications (generic academic and business writing/resarch unit) and have just produced a textbook by combining chapter from two books. There’s 12 chapters, each correlating to the week’s lecture. Heather, your words (and some others by Setch Godin (http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/06/textbook-rant.html) have insipred me to produce unit-specific PDFs, based on my lectures. And what will I get? A textbook.

  5. Greg – thanks for sharing your thoughts and the Godin post – which has interesting links to Quirk: http://www.quirk.biz/emarketingtextbook/download and Flatworld: http://www.flatworldknowledge.com/ The open access movement is very interesting – however, it puts the onus on students to be able to verify information, rather than just accept it because it is a set text. That’s to be encouraged, of course.

    I’m not so adverse to theory – although I agree that many academic texts could be written more concisely and clearly. I believe students (and practitioners) need to understand the why and not just the how. However, a lot of PR “theory” seems to be largely opinion rather than empirically tested or determined through robust analysis of practice.

    One of my criticisms of practitioner authored books is that they often tend to be too anecdotal and sometimes the interpretation of case study examples is poor – although that applies to academic texts also.

    Many practitioner texts also often fail to indicate any sources – and that is bad research practice regardless of whether you are checking references as a student or for authentication or further information as a practitioner. The beauty of online of course, is that you can include links and so make reading other connected work even easier. Ideally giving links to original and also counter-perspectives.

    I think it is really helpful to have unit-specific PDFs and other material, but we should becareful not to spoon feed students. This is a criticism of general textbooks too. There is a lot to be gained by exploring reading for yourself and that’s an approach that I encourage in my students. But like you indicate, that often means a chapter here and there rather than a whole book.

    It is very much like the music industry though – what we want are tracks not albums.

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