Books or Screens?

When a generation of people grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets, and e-readers, they are called “digital natives.” Teachers, parents, and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded. Students are now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks.

Patricia Anderson and Lauren Singer of the University of Maryland have published the findings of research about the relative effectiveness of certain media on our reading comprehension through the World Economic Forum.* They have found that even though students are familiar with and prefer reading via screens, the learning outcomes are not necessarily better.  It would be wrong to assume that digital reading better serves students.

Fast – at what price?

In self-reporting, students said they both did better and preferred reading digitally. However, their actual performance tended to suffer.

Prior to Anderson and Singer’s research, the literature supports the conclusion that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. Scrolling has a disruptive effect on comprehension. Yet, few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts. According to Anderson and Singer, some new insights emerged on the differences between reading printed and digital content:

  • Students overwhelmingly preferred to read digitally.
  • Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
  • Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
  • Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
  • The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like what the main idea of the text was).
  • But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.

From these findings, there are some lessons that can be conveyed to policymakers, teachers, parents, and students about print’s place in an increasingly digital world.

  1. Why do we read?

We all read for many reasons. Sometimes we’re looking for an answer to a very specific question. Other times, we want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines. As we’re about to pick up an article or text in a printed or digital format, we should remember why we’re reading. There’s likely to be a difference in which medium works best for which purpose. In other words, there’s no “one medium fits all” approach.

  1. The task

Consistently, for some tasks, the medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all that is required of students is to understand the gist of what they’re reading, there is no benefit to a particular medium. But, students may be better off if the reading demands more engagement or deeper comprehension. Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed.

  1. Slowing down

Interestingly, one group in the studies actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book. In other words, they didn’t take for granted the ease of engaging with the digital text. Thus, students can be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts.

  1. Something that can’t be measured

There are economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. And I realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. So I don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access. 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 should probably always be a place for print in students’ academic lives – no matter how technologically savvy they become.

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.


(A version of this article is to be printed in the Leduc Rep, and the Beaumont News in February 2018.)

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