Are e-courses better than books?

During this pandemic year, I’ve taken a lot of e-courses. They were already a part of my life, but during lockdown my usage expanded enormously! It was a way to keep learning and interacting with people in some way, even when in-person instruction was not possible. And as I’m sure you’ve all experienced yourself as well, online education has much to offer — but some disadvantages too.

I’ve enjoyed learning about all kinds of things, from English language teaching to contemplative spiritual practice to German grammar to memoir writing. I appreciate the ease and convenience of using my personal computer at home (when not interrupted by technical glitches, anyway). It’s amazing to be able to connect with people all over the world, unlimited by barriers of time and space.

But like many others, I’m getting tired of Zooming, of cameras and screens and electronic voices. And I’ve started to wonder: why am I attracted to online courses when there is a book available on the same topic? Why are these courses often more expensive than the book, and are they really worth it? Or even if they are low-cost or free, what makes them better than reading?

We live in an age when video is the preferred method of conveying information; most people don’t even read books any more. But when you do have the reading habit, videos can be frustrating. If the visual element is not really important, or the presenter’s manner is not very engaging, I tend to find them slow and tedious. I start wishing I could simply read a text version. I also like having information down on paper so that I can go back to previous passages, mark up and annotate, cross-reference, and just have a spatial experience of the information set out.

I have really benefited from videos for learning languages, where they are invaluable for connecting visual with auditory input. And even in English, I do like getting more of a sense of the presenter as a person through the video format. But with a well-written text, which is usually longer and more comprehensive than an online course, I still get a sense of the author’s voice.

The one thing that is possible with online courses but not with books is real-time interaction with the presenter or other participants. This can be a great opportunity to connect with other learners, and I value the connections I’ve made this way. But I’m not sure how much more I’m up for. In the future, when books and e-courses are both available on the same topic, I’m going to think harder before making a decision between the two. The book may be less flashy and exciting on the surface, but I might find the benefits more lasting.

What do you think about books vs. e-courses? How has your learning experience been?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts At Midnight.

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14 thoughts on “Are e-courses better than books?

  1. It all depends what you learn and for what purpose. For instance, if you learn German for daily interaction, you really need contact with a native speaker, to listen to and speak to the person. Personally, I’m teaching my self Italian, but I’m not interested in speaking it, no opportunity, I just want to learn written Italian, so that I can red Italo Calvino in the original text. So for this, books and online tools (Duolingo first, then Clozemaster and plenty of other solutions) are enough

    1. Yes, personal interaction is a really important part of learning, especially language learning (for speaking purposes). Different kinds of resources address different needs.

  2. this is really interesting! i think that turning to e-courses vs. books really depends on what you’re hoping to learn — i would go to an e-course if i wanted to learn things like SEO optimization, but if i want to learn more about a topic of history, or about a social issue, i would definitely turn to a book. i’m really glad to hear that you’ve had a good experience with e-courses this pandemic, though, because they’ve definitely been so useful for me! i love the LinkedIn ones especially, hahaha

  3. Hmm, I’ve never taken an e-course but I did teach one this fall. My students couldn’t have learned what I was trying to teach them from reading a book, or even the complete selection of books on my syllabus. I guess if I wanted to write a textbook about teaching college writing it might be possible for students to teach themselves from it, but I have no ambitions for doing that, at this point.

    1. Personalized interaction with an instructor is something you can’t get from a book, so that can make a course worthwhile for me.

  4. An interesting topic and reflection. Generally I’m more of a book person and prefer to learn and absorb at my own pace, but sometimes I want a more interactive or engaging kind of learning or listening, but it must be from someone who is inspiring. I’ve participated in and really benefited from courses of a spiritual nature, where there is both a work at home element, a weekly listening/viewing element and a private interaction with others element. This offers way more than just reading.

    I have discovered that sometimes I get more from a ‘learned person’ listening to them than I do from reading their books and that makes me excited in anticipation of doing their courses. If I’m not engaged I won’t continue, I’m past forcing myself to continue with something that doesn’t awaken something inside, I really let my intuition guide me these days, not my intellect.

    1. I agree, the best online course format for me includes content (video and/or text), do-at-home tasks, and interaction with a group. When it’s just videos, I’ve come to find I often prefer reading.

      Listening to a really special “learned person” can make it worthwhile though. I have found some of these as well.

  5. I haven’t taken many e-courses but to me there’s an element of timeliness and ease of updating that enters into the equation when choosing a format. A history book probably won’t need to be updated too often and the information shouldn’t change much (although I do realize that we learn new things about history all the time). But a book on, say, social media networking, would probably be out-of-date before it left the printing press. That seems better for an e-course so the information and current trends can be updated easily and frequently.

    I personally intensely dislike Zoom for some reason and really don’t even like videos if I’m looking for information. I’m a fast reader so I’d rather just scan to find what I’m looking for than listen to a presenter blather on about nothing for five minutes before even thinking about getting to the point.

    1. Your last paragraph pinpoints exactly the issue I have with e-courses. To me the main criterion is whether it’s material that benefits from video presentation — and whether the videos are made in an effective and engaging manner, with NO extraneous content. One can skip over that when reading, but I feel trapped when I encounter it in a video.

  6. My whole graduate program is online and I have just finished my fifth semester. This semester was only the second time I felt the instruction suffered from being remote and in both instances it is possible it was the professor who may have been poor at communicating. I do think there are things faculty could do to improve the elearning experience, which include requiring students to turn their video on, “admitting” students into the classroom ten minutes early so they can chat and talk about the weather before class, and encourage students to use the microphone rather than type comments or questions into the chat. I include some of my feedback in the end of semester evaluation but the only professor I have had twice already does these things and (unfortunately) is retiring in August. I offered to be on the search committee for her replacement and I am sure they think I am quite officious but it was worth a try.

    1. Your points sound very reasonable and hopefully they’ll get taken up for future courses. People got taken by surprise with suddenly having to use this medium so much, but they need to use what they learned in this phase to make improvements.

  7. I’d never really thought about this, but you’re right that books can often be just as informative as e-courses. I’ll use writing as an example because that’s the one thing I’ve done both for. I’ve read many books on the craft of writing and found many of them very helpful. One benefit of a book is that you can get a lot of information and digest it at your own pace. Of course, e-courses do have the benefit of interaction—and often a bit of extra motivation to complete the work.

    1. The possibility of personal interaction is the main lure of e-courses for me. But I’m finding when it’s just the illusion of interaction (only through videos) it’s becoming less attractive.

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