At our University (Athabasca) we are in continuous debate about the role of print versus nonprint format for our learning materials. A typical Athabasca course in our undergraduate, continuous enrollment programs consists of 1-3 texts, a study guide, a supporting web site and perhaps a lightly used discussion board (remember these are not fixed date, cohort courses)
I’ve long argued that the study guide (with links to net resources) as well as texts if available should be made available online. The rebuttal is that “students hate to read materials on line” or that I am just trying to rip students off by making them pay for (low quality) printing. I fear most rebuttals come from producers and editors who have a life long love affair with the aesthetics of paper verging on bibliophilia. Arguments that paper is inaccessible to the blind or the consequent destruction of trees do little to sway the paper proponents. I should note that I have nothing against paper, but don’t think that it should be the default means of disseminating learning materials.

Two recent studies (citations and abstracts below) have given arguments to both sides of this debate. As expected most students prefer to read materials on paper rather than on the screen. Of course the questions were not framed in an economic context such as “would you pay an extra $20 to have the course guide produced on paper”?

The Cheng and Ley (2006) study shows that printing of materials is correlated with age and with negative computer experience, but of most interest is that printing of content was not associated with higher performance. In fact those who preferred onscreen had higher performance levels. I am not implying that their reading on screen caused the higher scores, probably these learners are more efficient and age was a confounding variable.
But, the studies show growing (though yet small) interest by Net generation learners in studying from the screen. The recent announcements of yet another generation of ebook readers, give faint hope that the resolution, look and feel and access issues have finally narrowed the aesthetic gap between paper and screen.

In any case I still contend that we should not be subsidizing the forest indutry, limiting access to the visually impaired and most importantly reducing our ability to tag, search and retrieve our materials by retaining and defending the print supremancy. Let’s deliver in electronic format and allow this data to be presented in whatever formats the users choose.

The two articles are:

1. Chang S. & Ley, K. (2006) A Learning Strategy to Compensate for Cognitive Overload in Online Learning: Learner Use of Printed Online Materials.Journal of Interactive Online Learning Volume 5, Number 1,
The purpose of this study was to investigate the relationship between achievement and the quantity of online course materials that students printed and the frequency with which they reported using them. One hundred thirty-two graduate students from one of 11 hybrid or online classes voluntarily completed a self-report survey asking how much they printed (0%, 25%, 50%,75%, 100%), how often they used printed materials (almost never, rarely, sometimes, often, almost always), and preference for either print, onscreen, or none. Neither quantity printed nor frequency used was related to achievement. But learner preference was associated with achievement; onscreen preference learners had higher mean rank scores than print and no preference learners. There were no achievement differences between the online and hybrid learner groups. Learners, who printed more, used more and preferred print online materials and experienced more onscreen reading difficulty than learners who printed less. Learners who used print materials more preferred reading printed materials, had difficulty reading onscreen, and were older.

Unfortunately the second study was printed in a restricted access subscription journal so all I can do is provide the reference and abstract.

2. Norman Temple, Wendy Kemp, Wendy Benson. (2006) Computer technology and student preferences in a nutrition course. Open Learning, Volume 21, Number 1, pp. 71-77

Abstract: This study assessed learner preferences for using computer-based technology in a distance education course. A questionnaire was posted to students who had taken an undergraduate nutrition course at Athabasca University, Canada. The response rate was 57.1% (176 returned out of 308). Subjects were predominately female (93.7%) and nursing students (61.7%). Most students favoured having a web page with frequently asked questions (FAQ) and emailing their tutor rather than using a telephone (76.0% and 58.2%, respectively). Support for having a chat room was weaker (45.7% in favour, 41.1% neutral). Students had generally negative opinions on receiving course materials via a computer, with only 4.0% favouring this for the textbook. Students who were younger or had previously taken a computer-based course were generally more likely to favour emailing their tutor and using computer-based course materials.