E-reading is bad for reading. Now what?

Researchers continue to show that people retain less, comprehend less and do both less well, when reading digital texts compared to reading paper texts. Moreover, what little we retain from e-text we take less seriously. There is concern that e-reading is an additional threat to already embattled humanities and worse, reading ON-line deteriorates your ability to read OFF-line.

(Hello! Eyes here!)

Indeed, our intuition as readers can guide us in this question:

  • Devices inherently present more distractions.
  • There are tactile, physical components to reading offline that are clearly missing online.

And those are just the cognitive deficits. There a whole host of IT problems that make the cognitive ones seem trivial.

If you measure online-texts against what paper-texts are good at (freedom from distraction, physical cues to provide context and focus your attention), it is no revelation that online texts will lose every time.

So, if you are thinking of trading a paperback or a Xerox in your classroom for a screen, don’t do it?

Unless you have a really good reason. Like, if my students can look up words while they read they’re much more likely to keep at reading hard texts. If my students have a smart way to track their reading across lots of different documents, they have a much easier time seeing the connection between texts and as a result write better papers.

These are things computers are good at. So if we start with what computers are good at and we measure paper texts against online texts, there should also be no surprise that online texts will win (provided the software delivers on its promise).

Research is starting to support some of these claims. A study published recently by researchers at National Chengchi University demonstrated improved comprehension of a text with the help of a scaffolded annotation tool. Research at San Francisco State showed similarly exciting educational outcome improvements.

So here’s a different rule of thumb to consider, one informed by the research I cite above and reinforced by countless conversations with teachers:

If you’re considering moving to e-texts, don’t, unless it does nothing short of transforming your classroom in ways that paper can’t and has something to do with learning, not functionality.

ie. This tool will help me push my students to re-read passages they didn’t fully understand which in turn will get them to be more proactive about asking questions in class. As compared to: This tool makes it possible for my students to see each other’s comments as they read. (The latter is a description of software functionality, and a rather high-level one at that, which may or may not be implemented in a way that has pedagogical value.)

Sometimes an instructor knowing specifically why and how they’re going to use a certain tool makes all the difference in efficacy, so two teachers using the same software can experience drastically different results.

Other times, getting specific with what you intend to use software for is precisely the “missing information” you need to separate the wheat from the chaff when evaluating tools.

In other aspects of our lives, this would be considered stating the obvious. After all, knowing what I care about in a product is how I evaluate the relevance of other people’s reviews of said product, which is why online review forums typically ask if you found the review helpful, as opposed to if you found it informative.

However, for whatever reason, this is still something we’re learning to do with edtech.

In either case, the logistical wins of going from paper to digital alone are not big enough to offset the logistical problems of managing digital, or the cognitive hit we all take when reading from a screen.


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