Last Wednesday, International Baccalaureate Diploma Program students who sat their exams in May received their results, after a long and agonising wait. This was the first exam session after the syllabus change in the natural science subjects. Many students around the world felt outraged at the physics exam and started a petition at change.org, which reached over 17,000 signatures between the exam and results day. It criticised the exam for being a “significant departure from past exam patterns” where the books used by students didn’t properly incorporate the changes in the exam structure.
This story indicates some problems with comprehensive syllabus updates; an unfair disadvantage for all candidates in a given year, as well as the practical costs and difficulties of completely recreating textbook material to match exam changes. At the same time, syllabus updates are necessary, in order to ensure the syllabus material is cutting-edge, since this is one of the cornerstones of the IB. This leaves the IB community with a dilemma: a desire to update frequently, to ensure the material is good, but also a reluctance to do so, because of the practical problems that it entails.
Digital textbooks could do away with this dilemma. Since they wouldn’t have to be reprinted, only digitally updated, digital textbooks could be updated incrementally. This could have several advantages.
Digital textbooks would give the IB the option to change parts of a subject, and then see how those changes fare in the exams, thus mitigating the currently inevitable disadvantage suffered by candidates who happen to be the first to sit new exams. It would also be easier for the IB to make sure the syllabus would match the latest developments within each subject and within the education sphere at large, maintaining the high academic status of the IB program.
With printed textbooks, it is beneficial for the IB community to wait and implement all changes at once, so that the subject material does not have to be reprinted too often. As long as we depend on print material, this is the best solution, but it does lead to a drastic disadvantage for a particular year, while also preventing the syllabus from following global developments as closely as possible.
Likewise, with digital textbooks students would not be as overwhelmed with new content in an exam. Since only parts of the course would be updated at a time, most of the material would be old material found in past exam papers, used by many students as exam practice. The burden of the updated syllabus would be shared across year levels, creating a more harmonious and fluent process of improvement, as opposed to chunk updates.
Another point is that IB schools differ from one another. Some state schools with limited funds are unable to update textbooks more than every five to seven years, whereas private schools in more affluent regions can afford to do so every three or even two years. The difference in access to textbook material widens the inequality gap and undermines the principle that the IB is supposed to be identical across the world. Digital textbook subscriptions, instead of print literature, would close the gap and reduce unfair distribution of learning resources.
There are numerous advantages with digital textbooks; environmental, practical, financial and others. This blog post discusses yet another aspect, which is quite relevant in light of the sentiments of unfair treatment felt by many IB students after the May 2016 physics exam. Given the many advantages, there is a chance that the textbook industry will shift over the coming decades, eventually going more or less completely digital. When digital becomes the norm, syllabus updates can be done more frequently, quickly making any remaining print literature obsolete. Syllabus updates are a very real problem for students once in awhile, but it does not have to be that way, even though we falsely see the problem as an inevitable part of academic life.