Everything Old is New Again: Textbooks, The Printing Press, The Internet, and OER

There’s much to learn from history.

Sadly, as Audrey Watters has frequently noted, it might be impossible to find a field of endeavor outside educational technology where more of the participants are so utterly ignorant of its history. (I hope you’re aware of and looking forward to her upcoming book on Teaching Machines.) Even within learning design / instructional technology / educational technology graduate programs there’s a bit of a joke that every decade or so someone invents a new technology that causes the field to spontaneously forget everything it ever knew – because how could it possibly apply to the new medium? How could the things we learned about educational radio possibly inform our work with education television? Or teaching machines? Or correspondence courses (snail mail)? Or interactive video discs? Or computers? Or satellite-based video? Or the internet? Or smartphones? Or iPads? Or augmented reality? Or artificial intelligence? Or (insert whatever comes next)…

To my mind, the internet is an absolutely transformative technology (for better and for worse). With the exceptions of the invention of writing and the coming together of the printing press, there has never been a more transformative communications technology. Over the last two to three decades, the internet has completed transformed the administration and logistics of higher education (e.g., registration systems, financial aid and payment systems, transcript requests and fulfillment, etc.). This transformation has been widespread, and there is likely not a single college or university in the US  that registers students for classes like they did twenty five years ago (remember standing in line with paper forms and no way to know which sections might be full before your turn at the window?). However, I think it’s fair to say that the impact of the internet on teaching has – writ large – been shockingly small. There are, of course, exceptional cases where people are doing genuinely novel and amazing things with the internet in support of student learning. But I would argue that it’s the exception and not the rule in higher education. 

The failure of the internet to broadly transform teaching has led me to wonder – what was the impact of the prior transformative communications technology – the printing press – on teaching? Were faculty hundreds of years ago able to assimilate this technology as neatly as modern faculty have the internet, minimizing its impact on their day-to-day practice? 

Scholarship on this topic has been surprisingly hard to locate, with the best English language source I have found being an edited volume called Scholarly Knowledge: Textbooks in Early Modern Europe (price warning – get this through ILL if you can!). Citations below are from this book. I’ll share a little of what I’ve learned below and draw one tentative conclusion, before moving on to a discussion. But before we get to the impact of the press on teaching, I have to share some surrounding context that may sound surprisingly familiar to the modern reader. (Or maybe you won’t be surprised at all.) 

Everything Old is New

It turns out the key components of the modern textbook story have been in place for literally hundreds of years. For example, Grafton describes the suboptimal manner in which a metaphysics textbook was written in 1598: 

Goclenius thus tacitly acknowledges the messiness and incoherence of his own book, no doubt produced in haste from his teaching notes. This was textbook writing as we know it: deadline-driven, compilatory, and not so much intellectually ambitious as haplessly apologetic. (p. 24-25)

Unsurprisingly, the reality of how textbooks were actually produced was quite at odds with the hyperbolic claims made by textbook authors. For example, Grafton also describes a group of humanists who:

claimed that the special “methods” that underpinned their textbooks would enable the young to learn “Latin in eight months, Greek in twenty days, astronomy in eight or ten days, philosophy and music in a month or less”. (p.26)

I’m pretty sure I saw an ad for those “special methods” on Facebook recently.

Blair later spends some time discussing textbook use at Harvard in the late 1600s and early 1700s and, in another vignette that will be of interest to OER advocates, explains how Harvard dealt with the difficult financial realities of printing a technically sophisticated textbook:

Judah Monis’ Hebrew grammar was still prohibitively expensive to print because of the Hebrew font, but the expense was borne by the College, which then required every student to buy a new copy (rather than a used one from another student) (p. 58).

Thus, 300 to 400 years ago the foundations of the modern textbook story are in place – books that are so expensive that almost no one can afford to buy them (prior to the printing press), students doing anything the can (including copying out entire books by hand, more on this below) in order to avoid purchasing them, market considerations driving textbook creation in a way that compromises effectiveness, groundless claims of near-miraculous effectiveness, institutions requiring students to purchase course materials (thereby undercutting the used market), etc., etc.

The Impact of the Printing Press on Teaching

But back to the specific question I was really interested in exploring: how did university teaching change once books became available in affordable print editions (because of the printing press) compared to the previous situation, where only prohibitively expensive (handmade) versions were available? 

Before the printing press, faculty had to assume that none of their students had books. This led to a widely adopted practice known as dictation, in which faculty slowly read out the text for students so that they could make their own handwritten copies. (This was, of course, not the only mode of instruction. But it was a common one.) Blair writes that dictation was widely believed to have pedagogical merit, as “the act of copying out a text was often considered an essential part of mastering it” (p. 46). She provides a wide range of support for this view, going all the way back to Demosthenes and St. Jerome. However, others argued that dictation hurt student learning as the focus on writing distracted students from paying closer attention to the faculty themselves. (Presumably no one likes to stand in front of an audience and have them all looking down at their phones parchment the entire time.)

You may be unsurprised to learn that there is a strong economic undercurrent to the conversation about dictation, and that it often pit students against faculty and others. Blair notes that students saw it as “a cheaper way of procuring oneself a classroom text” (p.45). Consequently, a ban on dictations by Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in 1355 “anticipated vehement student resistance to the ban.” 

The underlying motivations for the bans on dictations (there were apparently multiple attempts to ban dictations at many universities) varied widely. Blair notes that “the [Paris] ban on dictation was likely an attempt to boost the status of the Arts Faculty relative to the higher faculties where dictation was less common” (p. 45). (It seems physics envy is not a recent development.) But Blair provides evidence that the ban may have had financial motivations as well:

In Paris the ban on dictation of 1355 coincided with the development of commercial stationers who rented out exemplars of texts for classroom use and thus offered a reasonably priced alternative to taking down the text under dictation (p.45).

One faculty member, accused in 1386 of continuing to practice dictation, defended himself by arguing that doing so “helped the poorer students” (p. 46). I want to believe that this was his true motivation, but I have to wonder if there wasn’t some degree to which poor students were a convenient excuse for continuing to do things the way he had always done them. Change is hard, and an excuse to avoid change that appeared to give one the moral high ground would be pretty tempting to hide behind.

Whatever the reasons for the various bans, faculty continued dictations despite the availability of inexpensive printed texts:

Although printing made printed texts more cheaply and readily available, these did not undermine the use of dictation in the classroom. On the contrary, dictation became the accepted norm for teaching in the arts faculties, particularly as students entered in greater numbers and at younger ages starting in the sixteenth century (p. 49).  

Long after the printing press had become widely available, “evidence indicates that dictation was dominant in arts faculties and college teaching in most parts of Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries” (p. 49) This begs the question – how do you continue to use dictation as your pedagogy of choice when most of your students are coming to class with a copy of the book you’re about to slowly read so they can copy it down? 

Leonhardt explains how some German faculty nudged the printing process slightly in order to accommodate their pedagogy of choice:

Around 1500, German universities developed the practice of producing inexpensive printed copies of texts that were to be treated in lectures. They were printed in small fascicles, with larger interlinear spacing and wide margins, and were intended to provide students with a foundation for their transcripts of the lectures (p. 90).

Leonhardt calls these “lecture texts” and further describes them as “an inexpensive copy of the text under study, mass-produced, as it were, with the ‘blanks’ to be filled in” (p. 91). “With the blanks to be filled in?” By increasing the spacing between lines of writing in the text and making the margins much wider, room was created for student annotations of the text. How were students to use that space?

Wait for it… 

Leonhardt explains:

In many cases, several different [modern] libraries conserve copies of the same printed text, whereby the handwritten notes found in each copy are literally identical or very nearly so (p. 91).

This is extraordinary evidence – multiple modern libraries holding copies of the same lecture texts that contain literally identical notes throughout – and there are many ways to interpret it. Seen through the lens of faculty’s resistance to change, to me this evidence indicates that faculty could not resist the urge to continue dictating. But instead of dictating the texts themselves, which students now had inexpensive, mass-produced copies of, faculty spent at least part of their lecture time dictating specific annotations that students should make in specific locations in their lecture texts. And the record suggests that students did just that – dutifully recording faculty’s annotations in their lecture texts verbatim (or very nearly so). 

So to answer my original question. What was the impact of the world’s greatest information technology – the printing press – on teaching? In the case of lecture texts, the impact appears to have been negligible. And that impact appears to have been actively minimized by faculty.

A Question

The lecture texts approach was likely not the only defensive adaptation that faculty developed in response to the printing press. As I have more time I hope to continue this line of “side research” and find additional examples. But I think lecture texts are a great example of how opportunities for dramatically rethinking our approach to teaching can be subverted (either consciously or unconsciously) by our innate aversion to change. In fact, since I first learned about their existence, “lecture texts” have come to epitomize the myriad clever ways we subvert new possibilities in order to maintain the status quo.

This particular adaptation is even more intriguing when we fast forward a few hundred years (and more that two decades since the internet became meaningfully available to the public) and see how, for some portion of higher education, WordPress plugins for online book publishing and online annotation are considered exemplary models of how learning materials should be created and used on the internet. 

Now, please don’t misunderstand me – I’m not criticizing online books or online annotation. I’m just asking a question – given the additional, radically different affordances of the internet, shouldn’t there be more that we’re doing? I’m not suggesting that we stop reading or taking notes – I’m asking why aren’t we doing those things and more? Wouldn’t it be an opportunity completely and utterly wasted if the primary things we did with learning materials in the context of the internet were the same things we did hundreds of years ago with learning materials in the context of the printing press? 

It’s a useful exercise to ask ourselves: what are the unique affordances of the internet – how do they differ from the affordances of the printing press – and what potential synergies are there between these new affordances and what research has established about effective teaching and learning? We should never allow ourselves to become so jaded by “ed tech” that we stop asking – and trying to answer – this question.

One (of Many) Answers

I’m a big fan of online interactive practice (here, “interactive practice” is shorthand for “practice that provides immediate, diagnostic feedback”). This is one of a precious few instances where the educational research results are compelling AND they conform to our common sense understanding of how learning works.

Can you learn to play piano without practicing? No. Can you learn to speak a foreign language without practicing? No. Can you learn to factor polynomials without practicing? No. Can you learn to interrogate qualitative data without practicing? No. Can you learn to code without practicing? No. Can you learn to critically analyze a text without practicing? No. 

It turns out that practice is an absolutely essential part of learning. But I fear our inherited responsibility as educators to decry “drill and kill” at every opportunity has gone a little too far, souring our attitude toward the idea of practice generally. (Even though we all understand deep down that practice is absolutely crucial to learning.)

Critically, it’s not practice alone that’s important. Practice without feedback is almost entirely useless. Practice with feedback is more effective. Practice with immediate feedback is even more effective. Practice with diagnostic feedback (feedback tailored to your specific misunderstanding or difficulty) is even more effective. 

I have an activity that I do with people in face to face workshops in order to demonstrate the importance of immediate, diagnostic feedback. It very clearly demonstrates three important points (and gets people laughing some along the way):

  1. You can practice forever without feedback and never get any better at what you’re practicing. 
  2. When feedback comes too long after you practice, it’s difficult to understand how to apply it to your current practice. 
  3. When feedback is both immediate and diagnostic (“that throw was too short and too far to the right – this time, throw a little longer and a little to the left”), you can rapidly improve at whatever it is you’re practicing. 

Here’s a version of the exercise I recorded with my son John. It lacks the fun social dynamic of doing the activity in front of a group (with a brave volunteer), but you’ll see how it works. 

Perhaps the defining characteristic of a printed textbook, or an online textbook designed specifically to be converted to PDF and printed, is that it is static. What appears on the printed page – or on the PDF page – does not change. A limited amount of practice can be distributed in this format (e.g., 30 practice problems at the end of a chapter). Feedback, if it is provided at all, is likely limited to giving the correct answer (i.e., the feedback is not diagnostic) and is likely limited to a subset of the practice problems (e.g., the odd numbered problems).

In contrast, the internet is largely defined by its capacity for interactivity (with other people, with dynamic systems, etc.). An online system can automatically generate and provide a large number (in some cases, an infinite number) of practice opportunities. Feedback can be provided for each practice opportunity immediately. Feedback can be designed to be diagnostic, helping students correct misconceptions while they are still fresh in their minds. It should surprise no one that researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that leveraging the internet’s affordance of interactivity in order to provide immediate, diagnostic feedback is 6x more effective at promoting student learning than reading static text.

Providing students with lots of online interactive practice is absolutely one of the ways we should be leveraging the affordances of the internet in support of student learning. But – particularly when it comes to OER – we aren’t.

Everything Old is New… Again

Back in 2012 I wrote:

You have to admit that some of the things the publishers are working on are both cooler and better than almost everything that currently exists in the OER space. Can you name a single OER project that does assessment at all (and I don’t mean PDFs of quizzes)? Can you name one that does diagnostic assessment or handles mastery in any meaningful way? …. Open education currently has no response to the coming wave of diagnostic, adaptive products coming from the publishers. To the best of my knowledge there is no one really working on next gen OER – OER that are interactive, simulative, really rich with multimedia AND combined with OAR [assessment] that drive diagnosis, remediation, and adaptation. There’s certainly no one funding next gen OER. And believe me – if it took $100M to get the field to where it currently stands in terms of relatively static openly licensed content, it will take at least that much investment again over the next decade for the field to do something truly next gen. Because this stuff costs so much to do, if no one steps up to the funding plate the entire field is at serious risk. Much has been written about 2012 being “the year of OER.” Let’s hope it’s not the year OER peaks. We need brains, energy, and funding on the next gen OER/OAR problem NOW.

Writ large, the field has not made much progress on this issue. On the contrary, more people in the OER community seem to be hostile toward online systems that provide practice and feedback than are interested in finding a way to integrate them with OER. Not only is this integration critical to support better student learning, this integration is also critical from the perspective of making OER a viable alternative for faculty as they make adoption decisions about course materials.

Too much of the current conversation in the OER community about online systems that provide practice and feedback throws the baby out with the bathwater. By being categorically critical of these systems and failing to acknowledge the significant positive impact they can have on student learning, critics of these systems can hurt their own credibility and the credibility of the OER movement they want to represent. It is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that these systems are capable of dramatically improving student learning AND be critical of how these systems are priced by providers. It is possible to simultaneously acknowledge that these systems are capable of dramatically improving student learning AND ask incisive questions about what happens to the data that result from student use of these systems. It’s possible to acknowledge the benefits these systems can offer while being thoughtful and critical about where there might be problems. It’s the unilateral, categorical rejection of these systems by (what feels like) a growing number of OER advocates that worries me.

If we value student learning, our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate these systems. Our goals should include seeing these systems priced affordably, insuring their providers are good stewards of data, and requiring them to be responsive to other legitimate concerns. We should also have a goal of seeing these systems built around OER so they can revised and remixed in support of local needs and concerns. There is a real opportunity to have the best of both worlds here – if we can bring ourselves to admit that we want it and then invest in working toward it. 

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