Online or print study materials

I attended a presentation this morning from an ‘action learning’ group that was tasked with considering replacing print study guides with electronic study guides. CQUniversity is a distance education provider and often courses will develop study guides that supplements textbooks. Historically, these study guides have been printed, bound and posted to students.

The presentation took the form of a debate with the affirmative team arguing replacing print study guides with online study guides while the negative promoted the advantages of print. They both had valid arguments relating to their team’s side on the debate such as:

For online materials Against online materials
Online materials are a natural evolution from print. A majority of students still want print materials.
Cost effective distribution. Socio-economic reasons based on CQUniversity’s student demographic.
Easy to update and publish changes. Myriad of devices requiring the institution to provide a myriad of formats.
Other universities are doing it  


The presentation in the form of a debate was great as was the quality of information that their research has uncovered. Now that I have had time to reflect on the presentation there are dimensions to the argument that are, in my opinion, very important. These are:

  • Change management.
  • The fact that ‘other universities are doing it’ is being used as an argument for us to do it.

Change management. One of the IT management team asked the research group about change management and this got me thinking. It will not be the university or even all the universities driving the change but the market in a similar way to what we are seeing with books and eBooks. It is where the consumers are spending their money that dictates what the publishers do next. I think that we are in a transition period between print and online study materials and we have to cater for both the online and print camps at least in the short term. Its not going to be a process that we can drive which means our systems and processes around the production of study materials need to be agile and resilient rather than static and robust.

We have probably made a reasonable start at this by using changing the print materials process so that it can delivery online eStudyguides but there is a way to go if we are going to cater to mobile devices in the future. The suggestion I would like to air is that we deal with the multitude of print formats (eg iPad, iPhone, Kindle, ePub etc) in the same way as we treat online video files. We produce a ‘master’ format. This format is easily trans-coded into other formats, even on the fly. I’m not sure of the technical limitations of what I’ve suggested but it may be worthwhile investigating this further.

The other argument was that ‘we must do it because everyone else is’ is. To me, this seems a bit silly as it disregards the context.  As an example, let us say the university decides to discontinue print study materials and move everything online. The presentation this morning stated that 83% of Queenslanders (I think it was Queensland) have Internet access, and of these, 90% are on Broadband. CQUniversity has an excellent record with regard to attracting students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. This could mean that our student cohort does not necessarily align with the 83% Internet/90% broadband demographic and this could result in significant student dissatisfaction if print materials are discontinued. Having said all of this I personally would not mind at all if print materials disappeared today.


3 thoughts on “Online or print study materials”

  1. Speaking of context. Did anyone look specifically at the context, rather than at abstract or external rationale?

    – What is the nature of the print material currently provided?
    What % of courses have print materials? How good is it? How often is it updated.
    – What is the real reason for this being talked about?
    I think the major drivers for management are cost and the hassles with print production. Have they been up-front and honest about this? Or are they simply trying to push the decision from “objective” measures?

    The framing of the question limits the discussion. That’s the nature of a teleological process. They’ve lost the forest for the trees. Focus on cost saving, rather than the broader issues. The “others have done it” argument is symptomatic of this. Rather than engaging with the realities of the context and knowledge of theory, it’s change by copying a fad.

    In terms of “action research/learning” did they actually do any action? It sounds like they did a lot of research and no implementation. A real “action research” group would have tried some alternatives and drawn lessons from that action. i.e. try a few courses with electronic only, some with both, some with just print…etc.

  2. Friday, 26 November, 2010 11:45 MAT

    I’ve often thought about the push to online materials. For mathematics, I believe this is very difficult. I haven’t found a good way around it, yet.

    Even typing mathematics in response to discussion forum questions in Moodle has not yet been resolved, although having LaTeX has been a huge step forward. The skill set to be able to use LaTeX is very rare, especially in the student population. Thus, students struggle and are reluctant to type mathematics.

    These students already struggle with the mathematics, I don’t want them to have to type mathematics. I want them to focus their energy and learning on the maths, not typing the maths. Therefore, I prefer paper based assignment submissions in the student’s own handwriting. If they want to use equation editor (or whatever) that’s great, but it is not required. This means submitting assessment through the post.

    Mathematics is about sitting down with paper and pencil and working it out, doing practice problems by hand many many times until the skill is learned. I firmly believe this. I find it difficult to see this changing.

    Yes, you can enhance the mathematics learning experience by illustrating things on the computer and having online support materials (such as practice quizzes or java applets). But at the end of the day (or even during the online quiz), it’s about the person having the skills and ability to actually sit down and work it out for themselves.

    Many students struggle with the difference between seeing math being done and actually doing it for themselves. These phenomenon are entirely different. You can see/hear math being done and understand the entire process, but not be able to do any of it. I can work the entire problem through giving the thought processes for each step and the student can follow what I do. Then when they sit down to do it themselves, away from me, they sometimes don’t even know where to start. This is the practice that they need. This would be away from the computer. This would be with print materials within reach of them at the table. These print materials should be easily and cheaply (ideally, freely) available to them.

    For my course, the exam is open book. I want them to have the study guide with them during the exam. I want them to have it from day 1. I want it to be available to the students at no cost to them.

    One cohort of students that I teach are already working in the mining business. They are on a “fly in, fly out” schedule with limited to no internet access during the fly in portions of their work. They can be away from a computer or internet access for a week at a time. It is imperative that they have the print materials so that they can continue their study without needing much other technology than their calculator.

    I think the students appreciate the materials being online in case of emergency or if they cannot access their print materials, but not as the sole delivery of the materials.

    I do not want to have things online just because everyone else is doing it. I want it to be because it will benefit the student and learning. Staff should not be forced to only deliver materials online. There needs to be consultation and avenues for those courses and situations that have needs otherwise for print materials. I am keeping printed study guides and minimal online requirements to meet the needs of my student cohort. That’s just the way it is, for now.

    Maybe, I’m just an old school mathematician.

    ,` )

  3. I’d bet a dime that the university would save plenty of money by sending the e-version and including a voucher (set amount)for printing at a local print shop. Less than 50% would use the voucher.

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