Feature: Modules vs Textbooks

By Harvinder Kaur Dharam Singh

Learning materials are vital to open and distance learning (ODL) because they replace teachers and classroom learning. Like many other ODL institutions, OUM takes pride in designing and developing learning materials in the form of print modules, CDs, webbased content and others for the purpose of enhancing and sustaining its blended pedagogy.

OUM develops the learning materials through a stringent process which is supported by academic experts and instructional designers. However, there have been some comments from some learners and tutors on the need to improve certain modules. Should improvements be made to the modules or should these be replaced with textbooks? To answer this question, first let's understand the differences between modules and textbooks.

A typical ODL module contains a course guide, learning outcomes, activities, summaries, key terms and self-marked tests. It will have a friendly style of writing with learners addressed as "you," lots of examples, a highly structured layout with many headings, various signposting devices, less text than a textbook and structured spaces for learners to write responses for activities. A textbook published in present times will also have almost all of the above. But it will probably have more text, fewer signposting devices and less space for learners' responses. Both modules and textbooks can be published in print or digital format.

Modules have an advantage over textbooks in that the former have clear objectives and are more concise and straight to the point, making them appealing to OUM learners. Modules encourage self-learning and usually contain examples set in the local context, which are hardly found in renowned textbooks as they focus on the international arena. In addition, it is more economical to print modules than purchase textbooks in larger quantities.

On the other hand, textbooks are written by field experts and undergo a rigorous editing process which makes them fundamentally free from grammatical errors and plagiarism. Textbooks also have better presentation than modules because of the colours and graphics used.

Nevertheless, in comparing modules and textbooks, the emphasis should be on the actual value of learning, which is determined by neither the cover nor the colours of the books. Instead, it is about providing quality content and presenting it pedagogically. While some modules need to improve in terms of quality, they also need to remain centred on the importance of meeting the needs of ODL learners.

Modules ought to facilitate the transmission of a meaningful learning experience, knowledge and skills to learners as stipulated by the learning outcomes. Prevention and early detection of problematic content in modules are crucial to avoid affecting learners' performance. Similarly, the other forms of learning materials should also be well devised for learning. Poor pedagogical instructions in learning materials will result in high dropout rates and affect the University's reputation.

Although the quality of a few OUM modules needs to be improved, OUM does have some excellent modules. One of these is OUMH 1103 Learning Skills for Open and Distance Learners, which received the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) Excellence in Distance Education Award for Distance Education Materials. This is a great example of what OUM is capable of achieving in terms of providing its learners with learning materials of high quality.

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In my opinion, the most important factor in producing quality OUM graduates is:

Tutors who are capable and motivated
Quality learning materials
A syllabus which integrates both theoretical and practical aspects of a subject
All of the above
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