A colleague of mine recently asked me if I knew of any research comparing traditional paper-based correspondence courses with online courses. I replied that it was a ridiculous question to ask and that anyone hoping to get anything more than trivial and/or useless answers to it is doomed to failure. I struggled for an analogy. The best I could come up with was this: if you had to choose a form of transport, would you rather have a mule or would you prefer to be able to select one or more options from any and every form of transport yet invented, including the mule?
There is a deeply mistaken perception that is rife in the world that the computer (or the connected computer) is a single technology, like the television. It is not. The computer is a universal tool, a universal medium and a universal environment. It can be many things, serially and at once. At its most extreme it could be every thing: I am rather charmed by the irritatingly persuasive but probably unprovable argument that, given everything we know about the universe, we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. But let's ignore that because it probably doesn't make any difference at all as to how we should live or learn…
I wouldn't suggest that online platforms are the best solution for every distance learning need but it seems pretty obvious that the success of any given learning opportunity depends on what you do with it. This makes comparisons pretty hard to make, unless you are grossly misusing online technologies, as different technologies afford different opportunities and there is no doubt that all but the most appalling online learning experiences will be significantly different in form, style and quality from those delivered via paper. The more technologies that are available, the greater the range of options as to how you can go about enabling learning to occur. Given that fact, arbitrarily limiting yourself to a single technology when there are thousands or millions of others available that offer an indefinitely large number of different opportunities in terms of pace, medium, level of interaction, convenience, learner control, pedagogy, engagement, etc, etc, etc, seems positively perverse.
There might be more sensible questions we could ask, however, that might let us make more informed decisions about which technologies to use. One of them would be 'what is the minimimum effort and cost that we can get away with in the time available to provide an acceptable learning experience for the largest possible number of learners with the smallest possible up-front capital investment?' Another might be 'how can we cater for the small number of learners without broadband Internet access?' The answers to those questions might lead us towards a paper-based solution under some circumstances though I would still often argue against paper in both those cases.
As technologies improve, I think that paper is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is expensive, environmentally harmful, unreliable, very limited in its media capabilities, bulky, anti-social, weak in accessibility, and (funnily enough, given paper aeroplanes) inflexible.
Interestingly, I would once have used most of those arguments against computers.
I would still generally rather take paper if I were going into the wilderness, down to the beach, or getting in the bath. I would also rather start a fire with paper than my iPhone and it is much better at mopping up spilt coffee than my Mac. If I had to choose between reading a book on an old cathode ray tube and paper, I would of course choose paper. However, if the choice were between my iPhone and paper, I would and usually do choose the iPhone, unless there are big high quality images or some layout (e.g. some poetry, some tables) that would be hard to look at on the small screen, or simple technical incompatibility gets in the way. As cheap, robust, flexible, high definition, untethered and light displays become more available and projection becomes the norm even for basic mobile phones, those exceptions will be much rarer.
Research in learning technologies is hard for many many reasons, but one of them is that it generally looks at what has been, seldom what is, and very rarely what will be. However, the research question that really interests me (and that, I suppose, distinguishes my interests from the purely educational side of e-learning) is not 'how should we learn, taking advantage of our current technologies' but 'how should we learn, taking advantage of next year's technologies?' There's a further question about how we should try to shape those developments that is also worth asking, which does require us to look at our current technologies with a critical eye, and it certainly helps to know what we have been doing to help to figure out what we will be doing, but the essence of our enquiry has to be focused on the future.
Next year (or the year after, or the one after that…), paper will come into the equation as the best means of learning about as often as mules come into the equation as the best form of transport. It will make as much sense to use it as it does now to choose cuneiform on clay tablets as the best means of delivery for our courses.
The only real difficulty that I can see with this is in deciding at what point it becomes economically unviable to continue to use paper as a mainstream technology. I think we are close to that point now. So let's stop making fruitless comparisons. Let's figure out what we like about paper technology and make sure that we don't lose it. Then let's move on.
ps – my thoughts on online vs face-to-face learning are an entirely different matter altogether. More on that another time.
pps. – and, of course, it is quite valid to attempt to answer questions about issues faced by those who have always used paper in the past and who are now struggling with how to teach online.