Writing: the big bang of learning technology
“The invention of printing, though ingenious, compared with the invention of letters is no great matter” said Thomas Hobbes. He was right, as the invention of the writing is the big bang of learning technology as it led to a still expanding universe of knowledge. Writing allows us to transcend memory. We create and store written content and others can distribute, retrieve, access, read, communicate and search other people’s stored creations through this medium. It is both outsourced personal memory and through reading, the shared memory of our species.
Mathematics clearly comes from the invention of writing, as does the transmission of music through notation, religion through scripture, literature through books, science through publication. It is the wellspring of knowledge and communications, and without it even technological advance itself would be impossible.
Invented only four times
Writing was invented, independently, only four times; first, in Mesopotamia, in Egypt at around the same time, then in China around 1700 BC and finally in Mesoameria, possibly around 900 BC. Of course writing, as information or software, requires hardware for its production and distribution. In Mesopotamia it was reed pens pressed into wet clay, In Egypt brush pens on papyrus and ostrica, in China flat oracle bones and Mesoamerica bark.
Writing is a technology. We can see this with the early clay tablets, written by pressing a sharpened reed into damp clay to produce neat rows of cuneiform. Clay and reeds, cheap technology that allowed knowledge to be recorded, communicated to others and stored for later use. This technology was wholly natural, cheap and plentiful. It could be shaped into pillow shaped tablets, cylinders, even put into clay envelopes, and was portable. In Mesopotamia, writing drove administrative business and trade.
Writing has produced a remarkable array of technology for both writing and reading. Writing has, over 5000 years, produced technology that has made it cheaper, easier and quicker. Reeds, brushes, pens, typewriters, keyboards, touchscreens, now even eye movements and gestures have all aided the process of writing. Writing needs to be read so clay, stone, silk, papyrus, vellum, paper, screens and touchscreens have all provided a suitable reading technology. It has also spawned teaching technology such as chalkboards, overhead projectors and whiteboards for the projection of writing.
Writing was also a skill that had to be mastered, along with reading, as witnessed by the many Sumerian and Babylonian cuneiform ‘exercise’ tablets that have been found. For the first time we see evidence of schools, actual rooms in which these skills were taught, as clusters of these tablets have been found with exercises completed by learners in writing and calculations, so it is clear that small schools for scribes were already being formed.
Similar phenomena can be seen in Egypt where writing was taught and practised on shards of limestone and pottery, on which scribes and artists practiced and learned their craft. In Deir-el-Medina, the workers’ village, near the Valley of the Kings there is an abundance of these shards. Writing put knowledge beyond the tyranny of time so that even now, six thousand years later we can read learners’ attempts at writing and mathematics, errors and all.
To write is now always right
Socrates (through Plato) warned us against the allure of the written word and its ability to ‘fix’ knowledge and rob the learner of the skills of oratory and the improvement of memory. We hear these claims echoed in contemporary critiques of technology, where the ease of search, digital abundance and fragmented reading and writing are seen as problems in contemporary culture. It was always thus.
We should not assume that writing automatically liberated the mind from the constraints of the state or fixity of thought. In Mesopotamia, writing was largely confined to state administration or religious myths. Religion also usurped writing technology in Egypt, where reading and writing was limited to a tiny minority and used to administer the state or write sacred, static, religious texts that remained frozen for thousands of years.
Similarly, with the rise of the Abrahamic religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam, scholarship, reading and writing was trapped in a manuscript culture that limited free thought and expression. The learner was an empty vessel to be filled by the certainty of scripture and the message from a few absolute texts. This has lived on in our teaching methods where the lectern and lectures still dominate University teaching.
Writing and media myopia
Another criticism of writing is its focus on abstract, symbolic and semantic knowledge to the detriment of other media. Before writing we had the sophisticated visual culture of cave paintings, art objects and sculpture. Non-literate cultures often have extraordinarily rich forms of expression.
Writing was astoundingly successful, as it used cheap, easy to use technology. Other forms of expression and communication, such as graphics, diagrams, paintings, photographs, audio, animation and video, may be more difficult to produce. Now that we have cameras, radio, TV, computers and the internet, we have the ability to create and distribute any medium on scale. It can be argued that our focus on text in education hinders learning, in that many subjects would benefit from expression in other media. It may also have pushed education towards an overly academic system, at the expense of the vocational and learning by doing.
Writing not pedagogically neutral
Writing, like all technology, is not pedagogically neutral. My twin sons are right and left handed (more common in twins) and Callum, who is left-handed, certainly took longer to learn to write than his right-handed brother. That’s because left handers who write left to right, mask and can’t read what they’ve just written, making it more difficult to spot mistakes. The trailing hand can also smudge. Similarly for right handers who write in Arabic, Urdu, Farsi and Hebrew. (My left-handed mother was a victim of teacher brutality on this issue.) We now know that teachers need to deal with left handers by showing them how to slant their paper and hold writing implements in such a way that they neither hide nor smudge. This problem carries through to school technology, where desks often have a right side arm rests for writing.
Writing and learning
Overall, however, writing is still, arguably, the most important medium in learning. Practised readers read at the rate of about 300 words per minute. This is roughly twice the speed of normal speech - and recorded narration can be even slower. The reason for this is that the grammar and meaning in written text is far more compressed and complex in written text than in speech. Written text tends to eliminate redundancy such as false starts, repetition, hesitation and asides. This has a considerable impact on the rate at which a learner will learn and complete a course.
Learners read at their own pace
Just as important is the simple fact that learners can read at their own pace. This is fundamental to comprehension and retention. Readers optimise their reading pace to extract meaning and often stop to repeat, reflect, skip and digest information. This is important in building internal models and relating new knowledge to existing knowledge. Reading is in this sense is often more learner-centric than continuous flow media such as audio, animation and video. The web is a user-centric medium. Users object to control being taken away from them. This is why the web is still fundamentally text driven, not because of limited bandwidth, but because users feel they are in the driving seat. Do we really think that Amazon, Wikipedia and eBay want their sites to be driven by audio and not text?
Subtle and sophisticated
A well-written piece of fiction or non-fiction leaves the learner to create images and reflections and possibilities, unpolluted by sounds and pictures supplied by others. It keeps the imagination free to create appropriate thoughts in learning and doesn’t clutter learning up with inappropriate items. Text is personal, which is why books are so dearly loved. Many sophisticated learners also prefer straight text delivery as they can read at their own pace, re-read for understanding and get absorbed in the structural or narrative flow. Academic learners are well versed in learning from academic papers and often resent the packaging of learning in multimedia formats. In other words, there are some audiences for whom text alone can be sufficient.
Flexible and searchable
Note that the alphabetic presentation of content in indexes, glossaries, lists, menus, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and so on, is a feature of text itself. Rich storylines can also be text driven along with categories, themes, etc. In other words, information of many kinds is often best represented in text. We should not ignore the sheer extensive, subtle and sophisticated ways in which text quite simply gets the job done. Searchability is another simple but profound quality of text. The web is the web because of text. Google only works because of the ability of computers to handle and sift through strings of text. Text is eminently searchable and it is this searchability that gives us unique access to the web, now the largest learning resource on the planet. Even searches for other media are mediated by text tagging.
Needs simple skills and tools
Reading and writing, despite obvious problems with literacy, even in advanced societies, are still widespread skills. In most jobs we expect the employee to be able to read and write. It is now commonplace to be able to use a word processor. Within this tool text is easy to manipulate, spell check, grammar check and format. Specialist knowledge in the production of the medium is not necessary. The fact remains that in terms of e-learning, text is a medium that trainers, teachers, lecturers, instructional writers and subject matter experts know well. It is the easiest medium for learning professionals to deal with and produce. Therefore, in terms of resources, tools and skills it works well.
Easy to update
Text is also easy to update. Changing a text file requires little in the way of technical knowledge or specialist tools. Changing one word on a piece of voiceover can involve getting the voiceover artist in, recording the new audio file, using specialist audio tools, getting the sound levels right and getting it programmed back into the original e-learning programme. Graphics requires specialist skills in both design and the use of graphics tools, and animation or video can be even more complicated to redo and edit. The simplicity of text is a real virtue.
Cut until it bleeds
However, text is not always effective in learning. Several pieces of research point towards overlong text as being destructive in learning. Mayer, Bove, Bryman, Mars and Tapangco (1986) showed that too much text can reduce learning by up to 50%. The lesson is that text should be ‘cut until it bleeds’. A good editor will reduce text like a good sauce and the learner invariably benefits.
Written text not suitable for some learners
Text can also fail learners with visual impairment, those with low levels of literacy, and those for whom English is a second language. Many who do not read for pleasure find reading a daunting task. Some learners just don’t take to reading at all, preferring other forms of delivery. Neither can text cope well with things that need audio, graphics, animation or video in terms of understanding. In these cases it is advisable to climb the media ladder.
Text has more going for it than many people imagine. Programmes often end up with more text than planned, simply because it works. It should not be written off as dull until its many advantages have been understood. Text can be read quickly, read at the learner’s own pace, be subtle, sophisticated, flexible and searchable. It needs simple skills and tools to produce, requires low bandwidth and is easy to update.
It is to be used in menus, in other navigational features such as text accompanying icons, presentation, captions, feedback, instructions, help, glossaries and in many other components in e-learning.
On the other hand there are significant audiences for whom text may cause problems. Text may be unsuitable for audiences that have low educational standards, low levels of literacy, visual impairment, hearing impairment or are simply not used to reading large amounts of text. Text on its own is rarely adequate for e-learning programmes. It usually has to be to be supplemented by audio, graphics, animation and video to make the learning palatable and improve the learning in itself.
Writing – digital abundance
Digital writing is not just a shift from atoms to bits. Digital gave text scalability through exact and cheap replication. This had profound consequences for books and newspapers, eliminating expensive print and distribution costs simultaneously. In the book world Amazon’s cheap prices and easy to use site with exemplary customer service and eventually cheap Kindle’s led Bezos to announce that “the 500 year run” for books was over.
In education Wikipedia has become one of the most popular sites on the web, the biggest knowledge base ever seen and growing.
Writing and keyboards
One could also argue that we are witnessing renaissance in writing with email, txting and social media. Never have so many written so much, so frequently. With the advent of keyboards, on computers, young people are increasingly using both hands from an early age to touch type, or at least type quickly. With mobile phones and texting, writing quickly with both hands and thumbs only, is another acquired skill. Games controllers also facilitate complex. multiple inputs. A Playstation or X-box games’ controller is as complex as the pilot’s input device on a jet fighter.
It is rather odd then that touch typing is not taught in schools as it a basic and productive skill. Pencils and pens are rarely used by young people, except when doing educational tasks and sitting exams. More worryingly is the effect this may have in assessment, where they have to use implements they don’t use much in real life. This may be skewing results.
In every area of practical and theoretical human life, without writing we’d be stuck in an oral tradition with knowledge limited to memory and the geographical reach of storytellers. It is the greatest of all learning technologies, with the most profound and lasting of influences. However, it should not be seen as pedagogically neutral. There are many issues around writing that distort the learning process.
Gaur, A. (1985). A history of writing. New York: Scribner.
Mayer, R. E., Bove, W., Bryman, A., Mars, R. & Tapangco, L. (1996) When less is more: Meaningful learning from visual and verbal summaries of science textbook lessons. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88, 64-73