Open textbooks and cognitive load

While sketching out a plan for my open textbook, I’ve hit upon a design question:  how “printable” should it be?  A “printable” open textbook would contrast with one that is more akin to a series of webpages: if it were heavy on hyperlinks and multimedia then it would lose functionality when printed, because extra steps would be required for the user to access the online resources.

On one hand, being printable might seem to be about accommodating preferences—those arising from a learning history with print materials.  But what if there is a more basic reason for these preferences?  What if the act of learning is fundamentally different with electronic course materials?  Could that difference make it inherently more difficult to learn from electronic materials?

I think learning is different with electronic materials, and I think it is harder.  To explain why, I have to make a big leap from my comfy geology headspace into the alien terrain of cognitive psychology.  Please do excuse me if I land awkwardly…

The difference between Y, P, G, I, A, G, N, K, B, and PIGGY BANK

The concept of cognitive load describes a sort of mental balance sheet in which learning is associated with a cost, and the learner has only so much to spend in her mental piggy bank.  The learner will spend some of her mental budget on the learning task itself.  Some of the budget will be spent on organizing the knowledge into a meaningful whole.  Both of these expenditures are good investments for the learner.

But there is also a kind of learning “overhead,” the extraneous cognitive load.  It is the cost of setting up the operation in the first place, and the more the learner spends on overhead, the less she can spend on accumulating and organizing knowledge.

When comparing electronic and print materials, the expenditure on learning tasks and organizing can be identical, but the overhead is different.  There is more overhead associated with electronic materials, and that leaves less of the budget for learning and organizing.  Some of the overhead associated with electronic materials will diminish over time.  For example, if the learner must first figure out how to use a computer, that would count as overhead.  Over time, however, using a computer might become second nature, and the related overhead would decrease.

What won’t change is the way learners interact with electronic media.  For example, consider how a learner constructs a mental picture of where the information is that she is after.  In a book, this location is a physical thing within a linear arrangement—you flip ahead, or flip backward.  If your thumb is already in the right spot, then you just go there without even thinking about it.  In electronic learning materials, you might scroll down a page, but there might also be links, videos to watch, recordings to hear, and other pages to cross-reference… the structure is branching, and there is no convenient place to stick your thumb.

An open textbook must be available electronically if it is to solve the problems of cost, updating, and distribution inherent in the textbooks offered by publishers.  The challenge is finding a learning-friendly balance between what can be included and what should be.

Categories: Learning technologies, Textbooks | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Open textbooks and cognitive load

  1. Shibin Wang

    Yes. It’s necessary for the e-learning to be ‘friendly’. So the designer of a ‘e-book’ or other e-learning materials need to keep in mind to optimize the user/learner experience. Always provide a ‘map’ to show learners ‘where’ they are may help. The ‘search’ function plugged in the website may also help. The printable products may come from a suited or adapted e-materials (if so, the print service need additional work, like editing another PDF version), more like the paper book than the e-things. Just a think inspired by you. Shibin

    • Karla

      Hi Shibin,
      I think a map is a great idea. It could serve two purposes: one would be to make it easy to navigate the textbook, and the other would be to organize the ideas and topics themselves, and demonstrate how they are related to each other.

  2. Heather M. Ross

    Great points. I’m clearly into technology, but am certainly guilty of occasionally spending too much time finding or playing with “just the right tool” than I do actually getting the work done that I was looking for a tool for in the first place. It’s an easy trap to fall into.

    • Karla

      Hi Heather,
      I’m just stumped by how to deal with these issues in the design. Maybe the thing to do is accept that there will be additional extraneous load, and adjust the content accordingly. Maybe a pop-up window is needed: “Warning: you are about to leave the carefully designed confines of this electronic resource. Click “OK” to accept the risk of increased extraneous cognitive load and continue.” 😉

  3. Hi Karla. A bit late to this conversation. I am one of the people working on the BC open textbook project. This is a wonderful observation, and a challenge we struggle with as well from a design perspective.

    The reality is, we are still in the early stages of the ebook life and it will take time for people to understand how these new technologies work. Yet the dichotomy is that they won’t understand how these new technologies work unless they are given the opportunities to use these new technologies in real world contexts. For example, does it make sense to have an index in an open textbook? Well, for print, an index is essential as a way to find information. Yet, in an ebook which have robust search functions built in, an index becomes superfluous and search replaces index.

    We have had 500 years to understand how a book works, about 20 to figure out the web (and most still struggle with that format as ubiquitous as browsers have become), and even less time (<10 years) for ebooks, ereaders and tablets. The shift will happen, but it will take some time.

    • Hi Clint,
      Thank-you for your comments! More discussion is always welcome! You make a great observation about having 500 years to figure out books, and substantially less to figure out electronic tools. I’m starting to think that the only way to get this right asap is research on how exactly students interact with these tools to find out where the “ghost limbs” are. These would be things that students reach for instinctively because of how they have always used print resources, and which they may miss in an online or electronic resource. The next step would be to see whether ghost limbs (an index might be one) are in fact identifying deficits, or just places where we need to set students up with different mental models.

      The cognitive psychology people have been thinking about making technology work in ways that brains like best, and there is probably room for this approach when designing course materials as much as there is when designing web pages or marketing campaigns. It’s something I’ve been looking into with respect to the design of course websites.

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