Seeking the unique pedagogical characteristics of text and print

January 14, 2015 Tony Bates
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.

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