January 23, 2017

Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of text and print

There's nothing like a good book - or is there?

There’s nothing like a good book – or is there?

This is the first of several posts on the unique characteristics of different media, for my open textbook, Teaching in a Digital Age. I’m starting with text, because it is – or perhaps more accurately, has been – fundamental to the development of academic knowledge. However, writing about its unique pedagogical features is rather like asking a fish to describe water. We are so immersed in text in academia that it is hard to imagine studying without texts to read and learn from.

However, with the increasing availability of other media, what is so special about text? How does it differ from other media? I have found writing about this particularly difficult. I have lots of empirical evidence on the pedagogical influences of audio, video and computing, but almost nothing on text, because in a sense it is the default medium for academic learning, the base against which other media tend to be judged. Now much has been published on what makes for good writing, and even what makes for good academic writing, but that is different from asking what can text do for learning that is unique from other media.

As a result, the following section strikes me as being rather unacademic, more of an opinion piece than an empirically supported and theoretically based account of the strengths and weaknesses of text as a teaching medium. So please bear this in mind when reading it, and if you have suggestions for improving it, or other work of which I should be aware, please provide feedback.

The unique pedagogical features of text

Ever since the invention of the Gutenberg press, print has been a dominant teaching technology, arguably at least as influential as the spoken word of the teacher. Even today, textbooks, mainly in printed format, but increasingly also in digital format, still play a major role in formal education, training and distance education. Many fully online courses still make extensive use of text-based learning management systems and online asynchronous discussion forums.

Why is this? What makes text such a powerful teaching medium, and will it remain so, given the latest developments in information technology?

In essence, I am arguing that the unique pedagogical characteristics of text are as follows:

  • text is particularly good at handling abstraction and generalisation, mainly through written language
  • text enables the linear sequencing of information in a structured format
  • text can present and separate empirical evidence or data from the abstractions, conclusions or generalisations derived from the empirical evidence
  • text’s linear structure enables the development of coherent, sequential argument or discussion
  • at the same time text can relate evidence to argument and vice versa
  • text’s recorded and permanent nature enables independent analysis and critique of its content

There is some overlap of each of these features with other media, but no other medium combines all these characteristics, or is as powerful as text with respect to these characteristics.

Text can come in many formats, including printed textbooks, text messages, novels, magazines, newspapers, scribbled notes, journal articles, essays, novels, online asynchronous discussions and so on. I want to focus particularly on the role of the book, because of its centrality in academic learning.

The book and knowledge

Earlier (Chapter 2, Section 2.4,) I argued that academic knowledge is a specific form of knowledge that has characteristics that differentiate it from other kinds of knowledge, and particularly from knowledge or beliefs based solely on direct personal experience. Academic knowledge is a second-order form of knowledge that seeks abstractions and generalizations based on reasoning and evidence.

Fundamental components of academic knowledge are:

  • codification: knowledge can be consistently represented in some form (words, symbols, video)
  • transparency: the source of the knowledge can be traced and verified
  • reproduction: knowledge can be reproduced or have multiple copies
  • communicability: knowledge must be in a form such that it can be communicated and challenged by others.

The book has proved to be a remarkably powerful medium for the development and transmission of academic knowledge, since it meets all four criteria above, but to what extent can new media such as blogs, wikis, multimedia, and social media replace the book in academic knowledge? New media can in fact handle just as well some of these criteria, and provide indeed added value, such as speed of reproduction and ubiquity, but the book still has some unique qualities. A key advantage of a book is that it allows for the development of a sustained, coherent, and comprehensive argument with evidence to support the argument. Blogs can do this only to a limited extent (otherwise they cease to be blogs and become articles or a digital book).

Quantity is important sometimes and books allow for the collection of a great deal of evidence and supporting argument, and allow for a wider exploration of an issue or theme, within a relatively condensed and portable format. A consistent and well supported argument, with evidence, alternative explanations or even counter positions, requires the extra ‘space’ of a book. Above all, books can provide coherence or a sustained, particular position or approach to a problem or issue, a necessary balance to the chaos and confusion of the many new forms of digital media that constantly compete for our attention, but in much smaller ‘chunks’ that are overall more difficult to integrate and digest.

Another important academic feature of text is that it can be carefully scrutinised, analysed and constantly checked, partly because it is largely linear, and also permanent once published, enabling more rigorous challenge or testing in terms of evidence, rationality, and consistency. Multimedia in recorded format can come close to meeting these criteria, but text can also provide more convenience and in media terms, more simplicity. For instance I repeatedly find analysing video, which incorporates many variables and symbol systems, more complex than analysing a linear text, even if both contain equally rigorous (or equally sloppy) arguments.

Form and function

Does the form or technological representation of a book matter any more? Is a book still a book if downloaded and read on an iPad or Kindle, rather than as printed text?

For the purposes of knowledge acquisition, it probably isn’t any different. Indeed, for study purposes, a digital version is probably more convenient because carrying an iPad around with maybe hundreds of books downloaded on it is certainly preferable to carrying around the printed versions of the same books. There are still complaints by students about the difficulties of annotating e-books, but this will almost certainly become a standard feature available for e-books in the future.

If the whole book is downloaded, then the function of a book doesn’t change much just because it is available digitally. However, there are some subtle changes. Some would argue that scanning is still easier with a printed version. Have you ever had the difficulty of finding a particular quotation in a digital book compared with the printed version? Sure, you can use the search facility, but that means knowing exactly the correct words or the name of the person being quoted. With a printed book, I can often find a quotation just by flicking the pages, because I am using context and rapid eye scanning to locate the source, even when I don’t know exactly what I am looking for. On the other hand, searching when you do know what you are looking for (e.g. a reference by a particular author) is much easier digitally.

The other thing that happens when books are digitally available is that often, users can download only the selected chapters that are of interest to them. This is valuable if you know just what you want, but there are also dangers. For instance in my book on the strategic management of technology, the last chapter summarizes the rest of the book. If the book had been digital, the temptation then would be to just download the final chapter. You’d have all the important messages in the book, right? Well, no. What you would be missing is the evidence for the conclusions. Now the book on strategic management is based on case studies, so it would be really important to check back with how the case studies were interpreted to get to the conclusions, as this will affect the confidence you would have as a reader in the conclusions that were drawn. If just the digital version of only the last chapter is downloaded, you also lose the context of the whole book. Having the whole book gives readers more freedom to interpret and add their own conclusions than just having a summary chapter.

In conclusion, then, there are advantages and disadvantages of digitizing a book, but the essence of a book is not greatly changed when it becomes digital rather than printed.

A new niche for books in academia

We have seen historically that new media often do not entirely replace an older medium, but the old medium finds a new ‘niche’. Thus television did not lead to the complete demise of radio. Similarly, I suspect that there will be a continued role for the book in academic knowledge, enabling the book (whether digital or printed) to thrive alongside new media and formats in academia.

However, books that retain their value academically will likely need to be much more specific in their format and their purpose than has been the case to date. For instance, I see the end of books consisting mainly of a collection of loosely connected but semi-independent chapters from different authors, unless there is a strong cohesion and edited presence that provides an integrated argument or consistent set of data across all the chapters. Most of all, books may need to change some of their features, to allow for more interaction and input from readers, and more links to the outside world. It is much more unlikely though that books will survive in a printed format, because digital publication allows for many more features to be added, reduces the environmental footprint, and is much more portable and transferable.

Lastly, this is not an argument for ignoring the academic benefits of new media. The value of graphics, video and animation for representing knowledge, the ability to interact asynchronously with other learners, and the value of social networks, are all under-exploited in academia. But text and books are still important.

For another perspective on this, see Clive Shepherd’s blog: Weighing up the benefits of traditional book publishing

Text and other forms of knowledge

I have focused particularly on text and academic knowledge, because of the traditional importance of text and printed knowledge in academia. The unique pedagogical characteristics of text though may be less for other forms of knowledge. Indeed, multimedia may have many more advantages in vocational and technical education, as we shall see.

In the k-12 or school sector, text and print are likely to remain important, because reading and writing are likely to remain important – perhaps even more important – in a digital age, so the study of text (digital and printed) will remain important if only for developing literacy skills.

More evidence, please

Although there has been extensive research on the pedagogical features of other media such as audio, video and computing, text has generally been treated as the default mode, the base against which other media are compared. As a result print in particular is largely taken for granted in academia. We are now though at the stage where we need to pay much more attention to the unique characteristics of text in its various formats, in relation to other media. Until though we have more empirical studies on the unique characteristics of text and print, it would be unwise to reject the value of text for academic learning.


I am so unsure about this section I am tempted to publish it as ‘Still under construction.’ Ideally, I’d like to link this section to a better source, as I feel it is so inadequate. So if you are in a position to offer any help or suggestions, I will be extremely grateful, as will readers of the book.

Up next

The unique pedagogical characteristics of audio.

Outlook for online learning in 2013: online learning comes of age

FunTab Class 9.1 Android ICS Tablet: will 2013 be the year of the tablet?

In a previous post, I talked about the difficulties in making predictions in online learning. Bearing in mind the hazardous nature of this endeavour, here are my predictions – or perhaps better, I should say ‘forecasts’ – for online learning in 2013. The percentages are not probabilities in a statistical sense, but an estimate of the proportion of institutions in Canada that will move in these directions in 2013. Thus in (1) below, I forecast that for between 10-30% of Canadian universities and colleges, online learning starts to become a core activity affecting all its teaching areas during 2013.

The forecasts are listed in my order of importance, in terms of their likely impact on post-secondary education.

1. From the periphery to the centre: one year 10-30%; three years: 30-50%; five years: 60-80%

This is the year online learning comes of age. If we take 1995 as the first year that online learning really took off with the development of web-based online courses, then online learning becomes 18 years of age in 2013 (you get to vote in federal elections at 18 in Canada – and even drink alcohol in some provinces.).

More importantly, I see 2013 as a terrific year for online learning, where it moves from being an interesting sidebar, operating on the fringes of an institution’s core, to becoming central to an institution’s operation. In particular, online learning will not continue to be supported or housed mainly in Continuing Education or Faculty of Extension, but will start to become integrated within the core activities of faculties and academic departments. If this is so – and I will provide some evidence that this is already beginning to happen – then another set of sub-forecasts fall from this.

2. Hybrid learningone year 20-40%; three years: 40-60%; five years: 70-90%

What’s primarily going to drive this move to the centre is not MOOCs but hybrid learning, by which I mean the re-design of courses to integrate the best of online and campus-based teaching. This is being driven by dissatisfaction with very large lecture classes in first and second year university courses, the need for increased productivity/better learning in times of economic austerity, and faculty’s increasing familiarity with online learning in supporting regular lecture-based classroom teaching.

Initially in many institutions the move will be crude pedagogically, with an emphasis on video recording of lectures and flipped classes, or merely increasing the amount of online learning supporting regular classes. Over time, though, as instructors get more experience in hybrid learning, get more instructional design support, and greater pressure from the administration, full course re-design will increase, but major redesigns around hybrid learning may take as long as five years in many institutions. One reason for this slow adoption of re-design is the current lack of appropriate models for hybrid learning that have been tested and evaluated; this will change though as experience grows. Best practice for hybrid learning will emerge, as it did for fully online learning.

I see this move being quicker and more in-depth in Canada than the USA, because Canada has a large number of dual-mode institutions, i.e. institutions that for many years have had both on-campus and distance programs. Many of these institutions (and more importantly, many faculty) already have extensive experience in fully online courses, mechanisms to register, support and assess online learners, and the expertise and technical staff to facilitate a move to hybrid learning. However, the support staff are often not located within the academic departments, so some reorganization will be necessary, and this will take time.

Although the USA has a number of dual-mode institutions, especially among the land grant universities, it also has a great number of institutions that are either very new to online learning, or have outsourced or isolated online learning from the main campus activities, or even more so, some very prestigious institutions that have no online activities and are just waking up and smelling the coffee (mainly the MOOC brand). However, this slow start for many institutions may be mitigated by the tendency of US institutions to move faster and farther than Canadian institutions, once they get going. Thus Canadian institutions have a window of opportunity to become leaders in hybrid learning but it won’t be open very long.

3. A strategic institutional approach to online and flexible learning: one year 5-15%; three years: 15-25%; five years: 25-50%

I expect to see online learning increasingly appearing as strategic initiatives within institutional plans (where institutions actually have concrete plans, which is still a surprisingly small proportion). A good example of such a strategic approach is the University of Western Sydney, which has developed a detailed strategy for hybrid learning which includes the issuing of iPads to all first year students. I know at least five universities in Canada that are currently in the process of developing strategic initiatives or plans for online, hybrid or flexible learning. I know there are many more institutions out there starting to move in this direction.

There are several factors that will drive this trend during 2013:

  • political pressure, from boards and governments looking for greater productivity and innovation. Ontario is a good example.
  • MOOCs: intelligently run institutions will ask themselves the broader question of what their long-term goals and strategies are for online learning before making any significant investments in MOOCs, but boards and faculty wanting to jump into MOOCs will start forcing this question. For an excellent discussion of this issue, see Joshua Kim’s post on MOOCs, Online Learning and the Wrong Conversation; also see  What should we do about MOOCs?” – the Board of Governors discusses.
  • changing demographics: as the population gets older, so do students. In many traditional, campus-based institutions, over the next few years there will be more students over 25 years of age than under – many two year colleges already have passed this point. In other words, lifelong learners will exceed high school leavers in new admissions. Is the institution ready for this demographic change? If not, it will lose students and funding. Online learning is likely to be a key strategy for dealing with this future shock.
  • the move to hybrid learning: this will raise issues of resources, organization, and priorities – in other words, you will need a plan
  • a slow but gradual move towards more formal academic planning; deciding on the methods of delivery – such as hybrid or fully online – as well as what courses or programs to offer will fit naturally into such planning cycles and decision-making.

However, many institutions will struggle with this development in 2013. Planning is often resisted by faculty as being bureaucratic (poorly done it can be) and as restricting their academic freedom (which is nonsense, but nevertheless a reality, unless they themselves get involved.) Furthermore, there are few places to go to get help with planning for online learning (my phone number is 604…..), other than private sector companies (see outsourcing below) who have their own interests. Nevertheless developing institutional strategies for online learning will become increasingly necessary.

4. Outsourcingone year 0-10%; three years: 5-15%; five years: 15-25% (figures for Canada – double for USA)

This is a corollary of the previous three trends. I see this as more pertinent to the USA than to Canada, where most institutions have at least some resources and experience already in online learning, and also are wary of private-public partnerships. However, I do see some institutions outsourcing all or a significant part of their online learning activities to organizations such as Academic Partnerships, Pearson or its subsidiaries, or 2U. In order of probability, I list the services most likely to be outsourced:
  • 24×7 technical support
  • learning management systems
  • marketing of online courses
  • online student administration:
  • registration, assignment submission, assessment
  • learner support/tutoring
  • course design
  • all online activities as a separate unit, with fees/royalties paid to the institution

The decision to outsource will vary from smart (it’s not a core activity and they can do it better and cheaper than we can) to not so smart (panic: we’re so far behind it’s the only way we can catch up.) In the long run, if online learning moves to the core, i.e. hybrid learning, then you can’t afford all the expertise to be externally owned and controlled. However, not all online learning activities are core or unique to an institution, so I do see outsourcing increasing in 2013, sometimes even for good reasons.

5. The evolution of MOOCs: the trough of disillusionment? One year: 20-30% of institutions; three years: 5-15%; five years: 10-20% (having reaching the plateau of productivity, the rest having exited the MOOC market).

Whither MOOCs in 2013? Well, first, they are not going away. Indeed in many ways I expect activity to ramp up in 2013 as many new MOOCs now in development begin to roll out. EdX in particular will be worth watching with a number of courses due out in the spring. I will be particularly interested in their design. Will the EdX courses reflect best practice in online learning (from the past) or new features based on recent research into cognitive learning, or new features drawn solely from the information sciences – or even best, a mix of all these? Or will it be the same old, same old recorded lectures?

I suspect that towards the end of the year, MOOCs will start entering the trough of disillusionment, although I doubt if they will hit bottom until 2014, when evaluation reports start to roll in, and the universities participating decide whether the business model works for them. I think there is enough momentum though to carry them through 2013.

© The technology hype cycle: Gartner Inc, 2012

I do expect MOOCs to survive over the long term, but they will be smaller, more diverse in design and targeting, and better integrated within ‘the system’ of post-secondary education. Indeed, some, such as the current cMOOCs, will continue to exist outside or in parallel to the formal education system. MOOCs will in essence fill a niche, or rather a range of niches, and important niches at that. They will not though have as much impact on institutions as the move to hybrid learning and fully online credit programs, although MOOCs will help to open up, but only a little, many previously ‘closed’ institutions. MOOCs will provide an accessible, low-cost source of up-dating for professionals, although there will still be increased demand for qualifications from lifelong learners through credit programming. MOOCs though, at least as we know them, will not solve the challenge of providing high quality, effective education to the billions in developing countries who most need it, because of language, lack of Internet access, and materials that are inappropriate for their learning needs.

The biggest impact of MOOCs from an institutional perspective in North America is likely to be on continuing education departments, many of whom for survival have relied on income from fees for their mainly non-credit courses. MOOCs will not destroy that market but will cause a lot of financial problems for these departments, especially where they have been offering non-credit online courses at a high fee. The response I think will be for many universities to charge a small fee for participation, and a larger fee for assessment, which will have a dramatic downward impact on numbers enrolling for MOOCs. Other institutions (or in particular instructors) will cap numbers (turning them into SOOCs – small open online courses) and run them in parallel with their credit courses, and some institutions may even offer credit to ‘open’ students who successfully complete such ‘capped’ courses, even if such students were not previously admitted to the university. (See University of Maine PI as an example). I also see some two-year colleges developing MOOCs, although they already have competition from providers such as Alison. Open universities are also likely to be impacted, but not as much as one might think, because they offer credit programs, and have in some cases been leaders in offering open educational resources (e.g. the UK Open University’s OpenLearn).

Lastly, we are likely to see some real innovation in online learning design in MOOCs. There is less risk in getting things wrong in a ‘free’ course, so more to be gained by an instructor in taking a risk, and the challenge of handling very large numbers requires innovation in software and design approaches, and a chance at getting large data sets and statistically significant results with the very large numbers involved (and no ethics committee to go through, in many cases.). The successful innovations will in most cases easily transfer over to credit online courses, so everyone will benefit.

At the same time, sadly many instructors will go on delivering video lectures, and will get away with it because of their research reputation or the brand name of the institution to which they are (often nominally) attached. However, MOOCs could and should be much more than this.

6. Open text books: One year: 25-35%: Three years: 45-55%; Five years: 90-95% 

From a tiny seed a forest grows. In 2012 the provincial government of British Columbia announced an open text book scheme. In essence, it is asking BC institutions to come forward with proposals for developing open text books for large enrollment courses, such as Psychology 100. The program is modelled on a similar program from the state of California. The idea is that the text once developed will be available for free for all students taking Psychology 100 across the province, although it will be left to individual instructors to decide whether or not to use the open textbook or other commercially available textbooks.

This is an incredibly smart political and educational move, for several reasons:
  • Post-secondary students in BC are currently spending on average over $700 a year on text books. This will reduce their costs dramatically, and the government gets the credit
  • Secondly, at least in the case of BC, it doesn’t cost the government any new money. It already had a modest annual online course development fund of $750,000, managed by BCCampus, which will now be used to develop the textbooks.
  • Third, if you are developing an online textbook, it makes a lot of sense to include student activities, video clips, OER animations or simulations, etc. In other words, you not only get a textbook, but a wrap-around course. Individual instructors can add, amend or remove not only content but also the wrap-around material, so they can individualize parts of a course without having to redesign the whole thing – AND they get a feeling of ownership that way
  • If, as I hope, two of the leading research universities, such as UBC and the University of Victoria or Simon Fraser University, were to get together, they could ensure that the text book would cover at least 50% of the students enrolled in that level of course in the province, and would put enormous pressure on the other universities to follow suit. If they were to partner with universities in other provinces, the costs of developing such wrap-around courses would come down dramatically for each institution. Thus this has the potential for scaling up dramatically.

If I was a betting man, I think this is the place where the OER movement will end up. It provides the means to combine open content, pedagogy, delivery, course individualization, student cost savings, and economies of scale. What’s not to like about this (unless you’re a commercial publisher?). Indeed, there are only two things that can really stop this from taking off: faculty intransigence (not invented here; interferes with my academic freedom); and political lobbying by publishers, which I don’t underestimate.

7. The year of the tablet? One year: 10-15%: Three years: 20-25%; Five years: 40-50% 

Of all the predictions, this is the one where I have least certainty. Logically, tablet use should grow in 2013. It’s the obvious way to store and access textbooks, they provide any time anywhere access to learning, they are more portable and cheaper than laptops, and they could provide extraordinary interactivity with learning materials. Perhaps even more importantly in the long run, students can use tablets for collecting multimedia in-the-field evidence, and for creating multimedia demonstrations of their learning. One or two universities are already giving all first year students a free tablet, such as the University of Western Sydney.

However, there are many reasons why this is going to be slow progress in 2013:

  • first, at least in North America, they are still too expensive. They need, like the Aakash 2 in India, to come down in price below $100. More significantly in Canada, roaming costs are still too high, as soon as you step outside the campus. If we can pre-load online courses and open textbooks, then a higher tablet price might be acceptable, but the roaming charges are a killer
  • no-one’s designing courses for tablets, but until we do, we won’t get the true affordances of the technology. It is simply not sufficient just to transfer over courses designed around a learning management system. The extra cost to the student cannot be justified. If, however, we started designing courses around the affordances of the technology, and in particular if we have tablets that enable the creation and adaptation of multimedia materials by the student, then their use could be better justified
  • tablets are still better at publishing and distribution than the creation of materials, although they are getting better. Indeed a lot of thinking suggests that they are complementary to rather than a replacement for laptops. If that is true, then tablets remain too expensive for education on a large scale
  • you need an institutional strategy for blended and online learning into which the use of tablets can be fitted; one-off experiments in individual courses or even programs will be hard to justify
  • the technology is still evolving rapidly, so what first year students get this year could easily be obsolete by the time they get to their fourth year.

So there are too many uncertainties to be confident about tablets taking off this year in post-secondary education, although I do believe their time will come.

8. Flexible course design (FCD) One year: 10-15%: Three years: 20-25%; Five years: 40-50% 

We are now getting much more into speculation than evidence-based forecasting, so treat this as very tentative.

I see FCD as being somewhere in between the full, ADDIE-type instructional design model, and the complete lack of pedagogy in video lecture-based online and hybrid learning. It will be developed in response to VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments, which is a pretty good description of online learning these days.

I see FCD as being different from rapid instructional design (RID), although it shares some commonality. The focus in FCD is not so much to reduce the cost of course design, by shortening the process (as in RID), but to enshrine core pedagogical principles while responding to a constantly changing academic, technological and organizational context. FCD also tends to be more constructivist in its approach compared with the more behaviourist approach often found in RID. In particular, FCD will increasingly focus on the design and integration of learner-directed activities, such as project work and multimedia assignments, which cannot be easily controlled or specified in detail or in advance, and to integrating new and educationally relevant technologies as they become available. FCD will also not fight traditional teaching methods applied to online learning, but will work with faculty to gradually modify their practices to a more pedagogically sound approach over a period of time.

9. International


Watch Mexico. Mexico waxes and wains in online learning. For many years, Tec de Monterrey (private), Universidad de Guadalajara (public), and a number of other universities have had successful online programs, but these have reached less than 5% of post-secondary learners. However, the new President has promised a national online virtual university, and more significantly, has promised to open up Mexico’s telecommunications industry to more competition. The latter should result in the cost of Internet access declining rapidly from its very high current level, opening up a huge market for online learning, as currently less than 30% of the population have Internet access at home. I see 2013 as a year when the foundations are solidified for a rapid growth in online learning in subsequent years.

Asia (especially India)

Asia already has massive numbers of online learners, particularly in South Korea, Malaysia and China. India now has the Aakash 2 tablet, and a strategy for online science teaching through the Indian Institues of Technology, and is likely to expand its online teaching rapidly, although lack of infrastructure and Internet access remain huge barriers. However, the government of India is putting in place a national high speed network connecting the major universities and colleges. India also has a thriving e-learning service and course design industry, mainly focused to date on international and business services but which will be able to ramp up online learning in India very quickly as Internet access improves, mainly through university and college campuses also being opened up for off-campus students requiring online access. In terms of sheer numbers, then, India will continue to develop and evolve its e-learning activities.

10. Expect the unexpected: One year: 100%; Three years: 100%; Five years: 100%

These are the monsters lurking in the shadows. In online learning, the only thing you can really be certain of is the uncertainty. These are Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns, so by definition they are unpredictable or non-forecastable.

However, there are also some known unknowns that perhaps we should discuss. (MOOCs are good examples – they were known in 2011, but the likelihood that they would take off in 2012 in the way they did was not known, at least by most pundits.) Here are some possible bogeymen to lie awake worrying about:

  • the privatization of post-secondary education in the USA. Many states are in dire financial trouble. Will this result in some states privatizing their public post-secondary education systems? What price would Alabama State University fetch from a commercial buyer and how would that affect the state’s finances? If some states do decide on privatization, expect online learning to increase – indeed, online learning will likely increase in financially challenged states without privatization, because, rightly or wrongly, it will be seen as cheaper; also expect federal student financial aid to take a hit in the USA as Congress grapples with the deficit.
  • a major Internet player (Apple, Google, Facebook or Amazon) jumps into the online learning market, perhaps in partnership with some elite universities, and takes a major share of the for-credit online market, because of lower costs, quality content, and accreditation from elite universities (but with a different category of degree from their on-campus programs)
  • The US Congress backs publishers and shuts down all publicly funded open educational resources; copyright legislation is tightened on US-based Internet companies making it all but impossible to use educational resources over the Internet for free
  • major power shortages/outages, due to bad weather/a surge in energy prices/political activists (pick your reason) makes online delivery increasingly unreliable during winter
  • quantum computing arrives at a reasonable cost and completely changes the game.

You could have fun adding to this list, but you get my point. There’s not much we can do about even the expected, never mind the unexpected, so really there’s no point worrying about it until it happens.

We’re in charge: creating our own future

First, you will note that I am more of a fox than a hedgehog. Most of these forecasts are a continuation of existing developments rather than startling new advances in online learning. Also the future is not going to be delivered to us; we need to create it ourselves. This means post-secondary institutions thinking through the role and purpose of online learning very carefully, rather than being driven by external and often hostile forces. However, post-secondary education is a slow moving machine, and change takes time.

Overall, though, you can see I am starting 2013 much more optimistically than for many years. Online learning will come of age, will become a central, core activity in most universities, will be strategically planned and managed, pedagogy will become more important, and learning as a result will become deeper, richer and more flexibly accessible. If all that happens in 2013, I will be more than pleased.

May your 2013 be as good as this if not better.

Now, given that more heads are better than one in forecasting, where do you see online learning going in 2013?

Do we learn less from e-books?

Szalavitz, M. (2012) Do E-Books Make It Harder to Remember What You Just Read? Time Healthland, March 14

This excellent article looks at research done at the University of Leicester, and also draws on experience from a number of people, that suggests that ‘physical books are best when you want to study complex ideas and concepts that you wish to integrate deeply into your memory……This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for e-text books or computerized courseware, however. Different media have different strengths.’


As someone who has recently switched to the Kobo e-reader for reading novels, I found this article really resonated with me. It seems that ‘deep’ remembering is very strongly associated with spatial cues and a wider visual context than just the written words. You don’t get that broader visual context with simple e-readers such as Kobo. This doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy using my Kobo – it’s great when travelling, especially on planes (except that I often have to wait between taxiing and after take-off, until the seat belt signs come on, as it’s an electrical device.) However, I frequently lose the plot!

First, it must be acknowledged that much more research needs to be done on whether printed texts are better for ‘deep’ memory. However, this needs to be done before the printed textbook becomes a dodo. More likely, we need to look more carefully at the interface of electronic readers, and pay much more attention as to the design of digital text for different kinds of appliances. In this context, I suspect iPads rule, and Blackberry’s and other mobile phones are poor devices for ‘deep’ knowing.

Thanks to Jim Ellis’s excellent eLC Digest No. 93 for directing me to this.

South Koreans extensive users of e-learning


Sang Yoon Shin (2011) Smart Education in Korea: South Korea’s Making the Switch to Digital Textbooks Advanced Technology Korea, October 10

Anon (2012) Over half South Koreans use e-learning MySinchew.com, March 13

These two articles indicate the rapid growth of online learning in South Korea.

By 2015, paper textbooks will disappear in South Korean classrooms. The Ministry of Education, Science and technology will develop digital textbooks that include various multimedia data, apply them to elementary schools in 2014 and to middle and high schools in 2015, linking them to every kind of educational platform.

However, the Ministry faces a number of challenges. For instance, some teachers said that as long as entrance examinations for college (like the national college exam) persist as paper-based written tests, students have no choice but to grab paper and pen, instead of using tablets.

Consequently, the Ministrytook a step back, saying that they would use the existing book-type textbooks along with digital textbooks even after 2015. They are acknowledging that there are problems not only in the classrooms without Wi-Fi, which is required to view digital textbooks, but also in distributing tablets. But because the price for table PCs is going down, and the availability of Wi-Fi is still increasing, the Ministry believes that by 2015 the current difficulties will be resolved.

The second article report refers to a government report from the Ministry of Knowledge Economy, which claims that over half the South Korean population aged three or over used e-learning in 2011.

The ratio of schools using e-Learning systems in their official curricula rose to 82.3 percent last year (Note: South Korea is in the top 3 of the OECD’s PISA ratings for reading and math skills).

Combined sales by the country’s e-learning service operators rose 9.2 percent from a year earlier to about US$2.19 billion in 2011.

“To help further foster a niche for the e-Learning industry, the government will establish a support centre that will support the development of new smart learning systems,” the ministry said.

And where is Canada’s digital strategy?

Can education afford the iPad?

 Extract: Click on the graphic to see the full graphic

Onlineteachingdegree.com has produced another interesting graphic comparing the costs of iPads to textbooks. It argues that textbooks are 41 per cent cheaper than iPads.

This is an interesting comparison, but it only makes sense if the iPad is seen merely as a replacement for the textbook, which it is not. It has many other features that could be used in a school, college or university. However, the overall point is a good one. iPads are too expensive at the moment for every student to have one.

Doing similar calculations though for a simple e-book reader such as the Kindle ($129 in Canada) or the Kobo Touch ($100) does bring the price down to a point where it would make sense to replace textbooks with e-readers – provided that the textbooks are available as e-books and at a reasonable price, which they are not yet. (But see Rice University develops free online textbooks)

Currently with e-books we are in a classic technology development phase, where the costs are too high for widespread take-up, and the necessary concomitant changes in an industry are not yet in place. However, several things will happen to change this.

  • First, the iPad or something like it (iPad 3? Android x?) will become cheaper and will have more functions, gradually replacing the use of laptops in most educational institutions; using multi-functional tablets for interactive, multimedia textbooks will become one application of many. Time horizon (for widespread adoption): 3-5 years
  • ‘specialized’ low-cost tablets will be compete with the iPad and other high-end tablets, and will provide an economical way to access e-textbooks. Time horizon: now for the hardware, but cheap e-textbooks are not currently available, so see below
  • new forms of open publishing will drive down the cost of textbooks, whether in print or electronic form, to the point where printed textbooks are really coffee-table books for specific purposes. Time horizon: 3 years. (In other words, we will go back to a pre-print age of just one copy in the library.)
  • eventually, textbooks as we know them (a single, comprehensive source for a whole course) will disappear altogether, to be replaced with modular collections of multi-media digital material that can be searched and combined at will by both teachers and learners. (These might even be called ‘open educational resources’.) Time horizon: 10 years. The problem is not the technology, which is available now, but the need for educators to understand the value proposition.

So we are not there yet, but e-textbooks are coming, probably within 3-5 years for general use. But they won’t be with us for long.