Emotions, artefacts and education

Books galore

I’ve been having bits of this conversation with various people, so I’m going to try blogging it as a way of clarifying the mess in my head (a little).

During the recent OU Crisis™ one of the elements that kept arising on twitter discussions was students and staff saying the shift to online was flawed, and there was a strong preference for books. Similarly, in nearly all of our student surveys the components of a course that score the highest satisfaction are printed units. As one of the early proponents of online education at the OU, I used to resist this narrative, dismissing it as people sticking with what they know. But I have come to rethink that over the years.

The argument is often couched in terms of pedagogy, and the big benefit touted for print was being able to study on the move (the “OU student studying on the bus” became something of an overworked cliche). But with fairly pervasive mobile devices and access, that argument doesn’t carry as much weight now (there are some groups, eg learners in prisons for whom print is often beneficial). And yes, many students find reading off screen difficult. But that is partly habit and partly poor design if we are creating courses that are the equivalent of printed units online. Generally, the pedagogic benefits of online and digital for distance ed students are superior. I’m not making a claim about face to face campus education here, but a similar fondness for face to face tutorials over online ones can also be found as for print over online. The problem is attendance at online is far higher than face to face – so what people say they like and their behaviour are not necessarily the same thing. It’s a bit like opera – I like the fact that it exists, but I’m going to be found watching Netflix.

But I think these sorts of arguments, while valid, dismiss a very significant factor of being a (distance ed) student – namely the emotive element. As I’ve mentioned before, I started re-collecting vinyl recently. I could make an argument that it is about audio quality, which would be analogous to the pedagogy argument for print, but let’s be honest, it is an entirely emotional attachment to an artefact. I like having the physical object, just as some people need to have a physical book in order to feel they have read it. We should not dismiss or underplay the importance of this in education.

To consider the role of this emotional aspect, let’s look at just one issue, namely student retention, although we might think of performance, satisfaction or skills also. We know for instance, that students who form social bonds with others are more likely to complete their studies. We also know that student retention is lower for online courses as compared to courses utilising traditional methods of delivery. Chyung, Winiecki & Fenner found that the main factor which contributed to the decision on whether to continue or withdraw was the student’s level of satisfaction with the first or second course in the programme. Specific reasons for withdrawal included:

  1. dissatisfaction with the learning environment
  2. divergence between professional and personal interest and the structure of the course
  3. low confidence in distance learning
  4. hesitations about successfully communicating online
  5. lack of competence in utilising distance education software
  6. feeling overwhelmed by the amount of knowledge and information

Now a text book or printed unit that a student feels a connection to could help address 1, 3, 4, 5, and 6 in that list. A text is something students feel familiar with already, and by establishing an emotional connection with the content of the course, they might overcome any subsequent issues.

It’s not the case that we should shift to print, and for instance, it might be different at Masters level than at level 1. Online probably _is_ better to realise many of the pedagogic benefits of distance learning, but the emotional attachment, comfort, security and manifestness of a physical object can usefully help support the online aspect. This might be the most important benefit that open textbooks could offer – making high quality, adapted textbooks economically viable to provide the benefits of the physical artefact, even if most of the actual teaching and learning then takes place online.

11 Comments

  1. When I was at Henley, 20ish years ago, and they moved from print, they sent out the CD’s in enormous branded file boxes as students wanted to fill thier shelves with them apparently…not quite the point I know.

    At Oxford Continuing Education we mixed print and digital and designed for it from the start – hopefully best of both worlds….

  2. Every day I spend hours and hours inside staring at a screen, reading, rather than being outside doing the same task because:

    1) my laptop battery has the life of an insect;
    2) I can’t read the screen properly in bright outdoor light;
    3) the wifi doesn’t extend outdoors.

    This are things I could probably address, like a wifi extender, but I never get round to it. So if I want to go outside, a book is easier…

    Similar problems 1 & 3 with long trips on trains, etc etc; plus if there’s no table, it’s cramped using a laptop.

    Books can be used in a much more flexible (open-ended…?) way.

    1. Yes, good point about battery life. But even if there were _no_ practical benefits of print over online I still feel that the emotional aspect gives them value.

  3. I have on my bookshelf Vols 1-3 of An Introduction to Calculus and Algebra ( Open University Set books) purchased in 1974 at a combined cost of £6.50 ( the prices remain on the fly leaf). I wasn’t studying the course, nor a mathematician, I was at a stage in my career (trying to code for the FFT) when I needed to up my game. Lots of my books have been discarded during the intervening 44 years but It took me just 3 minutes to find these three OU books after reading your blog entry. I have an emotional attachment to this series – not only are they associated with exciting moments in my career it was the way in which the Open University approach to teaching and learning first became known to me. The books were such a treasure find – I was amazed at how clearly hitherto unaccessible (to me) mathematics was explained. So I agree with you about the durable artefact value of print and of course the emotional element of Education. I would also point out that course material could be a strong marketing weapon in the OU armoury so finding a way of putting content online and also producing a print copy, including for public consumption, could be the way forward.

    1. Thanks Kathy – that longevity (and also the “sitting nicely on my shelf” factor) is a big deal for many OU students, and as much as I value the benefits of digital, it doesn’t compete on those elements. And yes, marketing! People see it in libraries, or on their friend’s shelf, etc

    2. Kathy’s comments are mine as well. The only textbooks I kept from undergraduate study are two geology ones- not because they *are* print but because of the memories and experiences associated with those classes.

      I don’t think it’s the form of the media or modality of class that creates long term memory, it’s the quality and richness of the relationships and experiences.

  4. The emotive is closely tied up with the sensory, isn’t it? A printed book engages the senses in a way the screen cannot. You can smell the new print, weigh the book in your hands, even stroke the glossy covers…
    Trivial, maybe, but possibly underestimated as a way to spark initial engagement: a new link appearing on a student’s homepage is less exciting/enticing than delivery of a big box of ‘goodies’ to explore.

  5. I have also noticed how much students want to print out readings and other materials, so they can annotate them. It’s not only the emotional and tactile elements, it’s about making it their own. An E reading or website belongs to everybody. Your printed annotated materials are only yours. This is ownership of their own learning, their agency made concrete, and it is I believe also critically important.

  6. I recall interviewing students for the Student Learning from Media (SLM) Enquiry Team in the OU in the early 2000s – one student said to me that she “Liked to have a sense of ‘something in your hand – now I’ve learned it!’” … she had “done online courses (not at OU) where you come away feeling that you’ve learned nothing mainly because you come away with nothing in your hand.” which seemed to express for her a very real, personal connection between learning, knowing and tangibility. Looking around my shelves a book is a cross between a comfort blanket and a reference source 🙂

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