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 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.