I first joined the OU in 1974 when all course material was delivered on paper. Course units arrived in large packs on a monthly basis. It was, as one of my students put it, “like having the narrow end of a funnel jammed in your letterbox with dozens of people around the wide end throwing stuff in as fast as they could”.
You can imagine the cost of such a system with a whole OU department called Correspondence Services based in a huge warehouse in Wellingborough. But it all worked out pretty well – the Wellingborough manager Tom Robertson had a motto (it would be called a ‘mission statement’ now) which was ‘Our 1% failure is a 100% failure for the students affected’. He knew failures would occur; the important thing was to put them right immediately. So if a student claimed they had missed something Tom would send a duplicate mailing immediately without any hesitation. Of course mailings sometimes arrived late – just as paper mailings do now for those students who get them – but there was website where mailing schedules were published so it was possible to make some kind of allowance.
Online versus paper
What sent me on this retrospective ramble was a query asking if there was any evidence of the relative efficiency of reading online versus reading on paper. Actually there’s been an interest in this question for many years – scrabbling back through my files I came across an old paper ‘A comparison of reading paper and on-line documents’ (O’Hara and Sellen 1997 https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/258549.258787). The authors were suggesting then that there were
‘critical differences to do with the major advantages that paper offers in supporting annotation… [which] in turn allows readers to deepen their understanding of the text, [and] extract a sense of structure…’.
But that was 22 years ago. Have things changed? Not by 2013 according to the Scientific American (‘The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens’ https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/reading-paper-screens/) which concluded that
‘…evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.’
But even that was 7 years ago. Surely now we’ve eliminated these deficiencies in reading text online. Not according to a 2019 article ‘Medium matters: the effects of print and digital texts on comprehension’ by Dr. Lauren Trakhman https://impact.chartered.college/article/medium-matters-effects-print-digital-texts-comprehension/. Trakhman’s research suggests that
‘Regardless of topic, text length or the inclusion of visuals, and in direct conflict with what the undergraduate students in our studies prefer and predict about their performance, comprehension is better when reading occurs in print (my emphasis – OS)… When it comes to things like pulling details, key facts, numbers, and figures, participants are doing a lot better after reading in print.’
Is online cheaper?
However surely at least going online saves money? Not according to authors such as Greville Rumble and Hilary Perraton who both believe that the overall costs of going online outweigh print costs. This is due to things like increased writing and teaching time (so increased tutor numbers) together with costs of maintaining and operating IT systems. This is especially if writing online materials makes use of the considerable variety of opportunities available online, such as video clips web links, simulations, audio and so on (Rumble, G. 2001 ‘The costs of providing online student support services’ http://www.c3l.uni-oldenburg.de/cde/econ/readings/rumble01.pdf and Perraton H. 2012 ‘Open and Distance Learning in the Developing World’ Edition 2 Routledge).
And there’s one other factor that I’ve not seen much researched yet. While writing this article (online of course) I’ve been interrupted by five emails, a YouTube clip about pianos that mysteriously popped up while I was searching the internet, a calendar reminder about taking the car for its MoT and an Windows update notice. Resisting the temptation to wander around the wonderland of the World Wide Web can be really hard.
So will we go back to stuffing students’ funnels with paper? Probably not – but maybe we ought to be looking more closely at ways of increasing the readability of online materials such as Microsoft’s Immersive Reader https://www.toptools4learning.com/immersive-reader/.