Books vs. Tablets (Part One): Analog Versus Digital

Over the past year, we have touched upon a range of topics in the field of eLearning. Such topics included flipping the classroom, self-paced learning, gamification, mLearning, and the like. Most of these topics are dependent on the ever-changing world of communications and digital technology. In the context of eLearning, it is almost a given that students, trainees, and others will be utilizing a tablet of one kind or another. One takes it for granted that eLearning practice will follow eLearning theory.  But if we simply follow the technological wave, then the actual learning value of any educational theory or approach is lost. For this series of blogs, the particular issue is the experiential dimension of using various technologies, in particular, the digital tablet. Remember, an important element of most thoughtful approaches to eLearning includes evaluation and improvement.

Content Delivery

Regardless of pedagogical philosophy, educators seek to instruct their charges with ideas. There are different means to communicate this information: from the oral tradition to radio waves, from handwriting to the Internet. Similarly, there are different formats for storing information: from scrolls to typescripts, from clay tablets to electronic tablets. Commentators may highlight digitalinformation, while intimating that analog is everything else. Such an understanding, however, detracts from the meaning of the word analog and clouds our ability to better compare different ways to employ and improve different technologies for eLearning.

The word analog is derived from the Greek word ἀνάλογος (analogos), meaning proportionate (the word analogy also is derived from this same source, meaning similar or comparable). Using this definition, data—information—is represented through an analog device using continuous, albeit variable quantities. The clock is the most frequent example of an analogical device. The hands of the clock progressively move in relation to the passing of time; a ruler, similarly, is an analogical device in showing demarcations of distance. For eLearning, that is “electronic” learning, the use of analog draws upon its understanding in electricity. For example, sound is propagated through waves that create vibrations in devices that etch grooves into, say, a wax cylinder or vinyl record based on varying degrees of voltage and resistance. However, much of the data/information communicated in the context of eLearning is textual.

Contrary to what one might suspect, textual data is never analogical; it is always symbolic. That is, textual data uses alphabetic characters to represent letters that represent sounds and ultimately words to represent ideas. There is no relationship between the symbol(s) and the vocalized letter/word in non-ideographic text. Tools such as a stylus, an ink pen, or printing press can create and store texts in various formats; texts can also be stored using binary code, that represent different letters, numbers, and words, that is, ideas. In short, textual information is solely symbolic; the key factor is the means of storing textual information. For eLearning, it is useful to determine the value of using one form of textual storage versus another: the book versus the tablet (or computer screen).

Information Format

As noted, the format of storing information has dramatically changed over the years. Revolutions in textual creation have occurred only three times: mechanical papermaking, the printing press, and digital publishing. Each revolution impacted a different element in the production and storage of information: paper—the substrate for imprints; printing press—the mechanism for imprinting texts; and, digital publishing—the means of distributing textual products. Of course, there have been a variety of formats and technologies throughout this entire period as well: linotype and newspapers, paperback books, et cetera. The important factor for us revolves around format ease of use and efficacy.

Let’s look at the various factors that determine whether or not a given format for information is easy to use and, importantly, whether or not the format of information hinders or promotes cognitive comprehension and/or retention. The following categories should be considered when analyzing a composite text:

  • Physical Character
    • Portability and weight
    • Durability
  • Visual Character
    • Textual character integrity
    • Textual contrast
    • Impact of lighting
  • Tactile Character
    • Engagement of composite text
    • Dexterity and style of manipulation
    • Use of writing implements
    • Sensory tactile sensibility

Next, let’s look at some of these factors as we begin to assess the value of traditional books versus tablets.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist

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