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To print or not to print – that is a good question!

Comment from Customer A “No one wants printed course manuals, we are all hot-desking so have little space and, also, have you thought about saving the planet?” 

Customer A has clearly moved on from using printed documents but is this the case for everyone?

With more training delivered online using digital tools, it might seem sensible to head down a completely paper-free route and assume that the days of seeing well-thumbed and post-it marked AssistKD manuals on the desks of learned BAs are over. And, sure, a soft copy is more portable, less easy to lose, can be updated regularly and is more eco-friendly. The digital experience can also be enhanced by media-rich content and quick links to other sites. Quite a list of advantages. You would be forgiven, though, for sensing a “but” here. 

For many people, print media is ingrained in their working practices and personal life. I still pick up and read my junk mail (bad habit I know) and purchase the odd paperback and magazine. It is simply more tangible than reading on a screen. I can feel the paper with my hands and even smell the ink, chemicals and glue that are used to put a book together. A printed publication appeals to our senses and we shouldn’t under-estimate the desire to own something physical. With so much screen time in our daily lives, it can be a relief to take a break and indulge in printed media. There are also fewer distractions as the temptation to delve into social media is removed. 

A course manual is a fundamental part of any training service, both to support learning during a course and as reference material at a later point. Given the move to remote working and learning, the question has been raised about whether or not a printed manual is needed - is online access sufficient or even better? Interestingly, research suggests that reading online results in lower understanding and less critical reflection. 1Printed materials appear to stimulate increased concentration and the ability to tackle more abstract questions. Possibly this is because it is easier to skim through an online page and a printed page slows down the reading pace, allowing time for a deeper learning process. It is not that straightforward though, in one study, students reading a digital version answered more tangible questions well while those reading a printed version did better on abstract questions that needed inferential reasoning.  

Our research has shown that the majority of learners prefer to have access to a printed manual during a training course and to have access to an online manual to support further learning/revision following the course. So, printed material is still very much a part of how we learn and offering both versions seems to be a good way to ensure that anyone wishing to gain skills and knowledge have all of their needs met. We might question if this approach will change given that younger generations have grown up using digital content but, for the moment, it appears that printing is here to stay. 

1Kaufman and Flanagan - High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-digital Platforms -

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