Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.
“Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks…
“Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.
“As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.”
This doesn’t surprise me a bit. There is something… superficial, for lack of a better term… about pixels on a screen compared to printed words on a page. They don’t stick in the mind – never mind sink down into the heart and soul – the way actual, physical, tangible books do.
And I had to chuckle at the comment that, “it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.” Ya think? Given a choice, most school-age kids – and even many adults – would prefer ice cream or candy over solid, nourishing foods, but if health and well-being is the goal, that preference is a poor predictor. Our preferences, as humans, are not always to our own benefit, in a whole range of scenarios!
That said, the person who shifts over from a steady diet of soda-pop, fast food, and sweets to a steady diet of nutritionally beneficial foods generally will eventually come to prefer the latter, even wondering how on earth they could have ever stood to eat and drink the junk they’d eventually given up. And a person who shifts from a relationship pattern of one-night stands and superficial hook-ups to the love and commitment of a steady relationships is usually glad they did.
I suspect a shift from screens back to books, as a general rule, might have a similar effect. This is not to say the shift should be 100%! Even the most nutritionally-aware eater enjoys an occasional sundae, or slice of birthday cake. And screens aren’t likely to go away, in our larger society, short of a major X-class solar flare zapping our technology back to the 19th century, and students need to know how to use them.
Besides, as this article points out,
“One of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.”
However, “when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print.” This is a distinction which should be kept in mind, in my opinion, both in school and in life! I have noticed the phenomenon myself, in my own reading, although I had not attempted to articulate it prior to reading this: I read faster on-screen, but engage the text – and the ideas behind it – better when I’m reading from a physical print medium.
And generally feel better and more satisfied after having completed the reading task, as well, which ties into another of the study’s conclusions:
“There may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise. In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text.”
There are both tangible and intangible benefits to directly, physically engaging with specific, individual books: their look, both the design of the book itself and the wear-and-tear it has received over the months, years, or decades; their heft, in which even the difference between a mass-market paperback, a trade paperback, or a hardback book can be significant, not only in weight but in the feeling of permanence and solidity it engenders; and even the scent: for many of us, the smell of old books is a part of their appeal, reminding us that they have been around, cherished and re-read, for in some cases a very long time. Conversely, the smell of a new book can be exciting in a different way, carrying with it the sense of beginning an adventure. Many of these benefits are substantially reduced, or lost entirely, if our reading is mostly or entirely on electronic screens.
You will have noticed that I’ve several times alluded to the permanence / impermanence issue. Pixels on a screen are fundamentally transient, impermanent. They can be changed or deleted, either individually or en masse; they can be rendered inaccessible for a myriad of reasons ranging from running out of battery, to not having the right operating system (Kindle vs Nook vs ….?), to forgetting your password, and the list could go on.
Yes, physical, printed books can have issues, too. They are vulnerable to fire (though that is rarely an issue) and water (I suppose you could drop yours in the toilet, or the lake, and you wouldn’t want to read it in the rain – but the same could likely be said of your tablet); you could forget it, or lose it… but again, the same applies to your e-reading device. There are simply not so many things that can go wrong with a physical book, as with an e-reader.
There is another concern, too: it is way too easy to get rid of electronic “books.” We humans have evolved, over the centuries, a protective attitude toward physical books, and an aversion to damaging, destroying, or discarding them. Many or most of us would prefer to give old books we don’t need anymore away, or take them to the library for a sale, or donate them, than simply throw them out. And the idea of burning books, or even banning them, carries connotations of police-state totalitarianism.
But what if those books can simply be deleted, or their text changed – quietly, unobtrusively, unnoticed – with a few strokes of a keyboard? What then for the preservation of ideas, the evolution of human thought? At this point, the practical considerations, and even the educational ones, shade over into philosophical and moral concerns. I am not sure anyone has sufficiently addressed these implications of the digitization of our written media.
Of course, the argument so often raised in favour of digital media is that you can carry a hundred (electronic) books in an e-reader the size of a paperback. A veritable library in your pocket, purse, backpack, or messenger bag! And that is an undeniable advantage – at certain times, and for certain reasons. Travel, for instance… if you’re sure you’ll have regular access to an electrical outlet, for charging. If not, you may be better off with one or a few well-chosen actual books.
Otherwise, it is at least arguable whether high capacity is a “feature,” or a “bug”! Distraction, and/or merely superficial attention, is one of the major issues with reading on-screen as opposed to in actual, physical, print media. Carrying a whole library with you in a single, compact device sounds great on the surface, but it may well serve to increase the tendency to engage the text(s) only superficially – and if, as many e-readers do, you have the ability to also go online, there is another two-edged sword.
It’s great to be able to easily look up obscure references or background information for a passage you’re reading. But it also increases the temptation to “just check my email (or Facebook, or Twitter, or whatever) while I’m online,” and before you know it, you’re down the rabbit-hole. As one comment I like (albeit in a rueful sort of way) puts it, “With the internet, we have immediate, 24-7 access to the wisdom of the ages. But most of us use it looking at pictures of cats.” Distraction is a thing.
This has gotten a bit far afield from the specific issue of using screens for reading in an educational context. But it is worth raising the question of whether encouraging students to use screens – whether computers, laptops, tablets, smart-phones, e-readers, etc. – as their primary information source is really serving them all that well, with respect to either their current educational task, or their future.
Like a lot of other forms of technology, screens are useful, but not entirely benign. They are, as the old saying goes, “useful servants, but bad masters.” The problem is that so many of us are allowing them to dictate our lives, rather than the other way ’round. Gotta check my email. Gotta check my Facebook. Gotta check my Instagram. Gotta check my messages. Gotta check, gotta check, gotta check… and respond, of course. And then look up something else. Scan articles. Scan blog-posts. And on an e-reader, scan books… or the electronic facsimiles thereof.
Now, I am aware of the slight irony of composing this objection to excessive use of online devices, online! If my goal was to bash technology entirely, I should be writing it on parchment, with a quill pen… or pressing it into damp clay with a wooden stylus. But I am not. As I said above: “useful servant, bad master.”
I am writing this online because I can reach far more people this way than by mailing it out in letters to people I think might be interested – and even if I were going to print it out and distribute it that way, I’d still type it on the computer, because I can type much faster than I can print or write longhand. Taking advantage of certain aspects of technology for its benefits does not, or should not, immunize us from also considering its problematic elements.
Nor am I limiting myself to electronic media. Before I started this essay, I was re-reading – for the nth time – J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (specifically, the second volume, “The Two Towers”)… using an actual, physical book. Earlier still, I did an online broadcast of Morning Prayer – again, because I can reach more people that way – but using a decades-old copy of The Book of Common Prayer 1928, and reading a meditation from another book originally written in 1858 (the edition that I have was printed in 1890).
It’s one thing to use a variety of appropriate technologies, depending on your needs and intentions. It’s another thing to become so fixated or dependent on a particular one – particularly one with the limitations of electronic screens, as described above – that you don’t end up using anything else. As the authors of the linked essay put it,
“we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access. Rather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives – and those who shape their educational experiences – that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.”