Thursday, May 27, 2010

How Do You Radically Improve Education?

I am giving a 75-minute presentation next week to about 60-70 college educators. I am going to talk about the evolution of textbooks (as I see it) over the next few years.

When I give a speech or presentation, I like to send out a note to the participants in advance to help get them involved in the topic even before I start. It is not always possible but, if it can be worked out, they tend to walk into the program with some thoughts already rattling around in their heads which helps in getting them involved in the conversation.

So, here is the note that I sent out to the participants in next week’s conference. I share it with you because it talks about some of my feelings about college textbooks.

I am writing this note to the participants in the June 4 Virginia Educators’ Symposium at the VSCPA in Richmond. My name is Joe Hoyle and I am on the faculty at the Robins School of Business here at the University of Richmond. More importantly, I will be the opening speaker at the Educators’ Symposium. I look forward to seeing whether you are more or less asleep than my own students would be at 8:30 on a Friday morning.

At the Symposium, I will be chatting with you about “The Emergence of New Textbook Models in Higher Education.” In November 2006, an accounting textbook editor challenged me to design “the textbook of the 21st Century.” As a result, I have spent the last 3 ½ years thinking about what textbooks look like, what they are supposed to accomplish, what they do well, what they do poorly, and how they could be changed. These musings have been influenced by my own thoughts and beliefs about learning and the education process in general. How do we get students engaged in our classes? Why should any student really want to learn accounting? How are we able to take a person in August who knows nothing about accounting and systematically turn that person into someone who has a genuine understanding of accounting by December? Come up with legitimate answers to those kinds of questions and I guarantee you will have a successful class.

As I will tell you on June 4, my number one realization from these musings is that textbooks sit at the very heart of a vast majority of courses in college. The quickest way to create a radical advancement in college accounting education across the board is to improve the quality of that textbook. There is a limit on how much you can change the students or the teachers but the textbooks offer a real opportunity for improvement. Better textbooks simply mean better learning.

Want to get a feel for what is wrong with textbooks? Here’s an experiment that I tried. Walk across your campus to your bookstore. Pick up a textbook titled something like Introduction to Physics. Find a comfortable chair and read the book for 15 minutes. This is as close as you can get to the actual experience your students have when they start reading the textbook for your class. So, after 15 minutes, what was your response to “Introduction to Physics?”
A – My gosh this is boring
B – I don’t understand what they are talking about
C – Wow, I really want to spend many hours this semester learning physics

The problem with textbooks is that 50 percent of YOUR students will say A and 50 percent will say B and no one will say C. And, that is a shame because learning accounting (and probably physics also) can be a wonderful and enlightening experience. At its best, education is super enjoyable. If we want to improve the education experience, we need to start getting our students to read their textbooks and say C.

When I bring up “textbooks need to improve,” I always get the same one word response: “technology.” And, I agree that technology can be a wonderful aid but I think we abdicate responsible for being more innovative when we leave educational improvement to punching more and more keys on smaller and smaller electronic devices. That is one component of the needed change but only one component.

I really look forward to conversing with you about textbooks on June 4. Bring your questions. More importantly—bring your answers.

And, if you want to see the result of my 3 ½ years of pondering textbooks, you can go to:

I go through Mozilla Firefox but you can access it with IE also. Click on “detailed view” and you’ll see the content of the chapters. Watch a video and read a few pages. Pretend it is a physics book and see how you feel about it.


  1. I find it strange that the foundation to all financial accounting, being double entry, does not make an entry until chapter 4. It is a bit like Hamlet turning up in Act 3 of the eponymous play.

    Besides the assertion that double entry was invented in late Renaissance Italy is simply wrong.

    Whilst I can no longer empathise with an accounting novice I would have thought an introduction that discussed the importance of financial accounting against the backdrop of economic history would grab their attention.

  2. Well, if this were a bookkeeping textbook, I would have put double entry bookkeeping in chapter one. This is a financial accounting textbook and I think chapter 4 is about right. But, that is certainly up to the individual textbook writer. Different people start different ways.

    Second, I never said that double entry was invented in late Renaissance Italy. I do say that the procedures "were first documented in 1494 by Fra Luca Bartolomeo." What is your suggestion on that? Joe