E-books vs. real books: aren’t e-books trendier and better?
As regular readers know, I am not a fan of “technology” in education. I don’t mean I’m an old fogey—though I’m well on my way to old fogeyhood—incapable of dealing with computers and similar innovations, quite the opposite. I simply don’t see such devices, and various programs on Google and other sites that purport to revolutionize education, as revolutionary or, in most cases, helpful.
Every day I post an aphorism which the kids copy. We discuss the topic, tone and theme of each. A recent aphorism, from Mark Twain—he wrote a great many–was:
Don’t let schooling interfere with your education.
I told the kids they have cell phones–capable computers–in their pockets that give them near-instantaneous access to much of human knowledge, yet they use them for playing mindless games, taking selfies, texting, social media (also mindless) and porn. Revolutionary, if one considers wasting time and goofing off revolutionary.
Today’s students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.
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.
In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.
It should be noted at this point that many California school districts that issued iPads to students expecting miraculous jumps in achievement were disappointed, as no improvement was noted.The kids used them for playing mindless games, selfies, texting, social media and porn. Oh, a few actually used them for school related endeavors, but many broke them, lost them, pawned them, or they were stolen by other kids. In other words, as is common in CA, and to a lesser degree elsewhere, billions were spent and wasted to no good end.
Alexander and Singer researched the digital vs. print issue and discovered digital texts are not superior:
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.
For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effectthat scrolling has on comprehension. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.
A major factor that they do not particularly addressing is kids, and many adults, are not readers. Like any skill, reading must be practiced if one is to improve, or even maintain a level of proficiency. Many, if not most, of the deficiencies teachers see in contemporary students are directly attributable to their lack of reading. Alexander and Singer reviewed three studies:
… some key findings emerged that shed new light 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 understanding the main idea of the text).
*But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.
None of this is in the least surprising. My responses:
Of course they prefer to read digitally. They’re accustomed, through their own terribly limited reading—social media and short texts—and through mandatory, high stakes testing and related testing, where they read only brief, dumbed down passages, to see reading as only brief, simplistic passages or questions like “How R U?” or “That’s lame!” or “LOL!!!!” None of this takes effort, time or thought. And while pretending to read in class, they can use social media, play games, surf the web, and other productive activities.
Of course they’re faster online than in print. Their conditioning leads them to derive meaning immediately and effortlessly—but only with specific kinds of texts and formats. Anything that won’t yield those results is not only puzzling, but frustrating, and they dislike having to do the work necessary to avoid those feelings. A large part of this issue is so many students have such limited vocabularies, and I’m not talking about complex, technical words. Most simply won’t do that work. They judge their comprehension as better online than in print because print requires actually paying attention over time, actual thinking, attention to detail, the use of short and long-term memory, an expanded vocabulary, or at least the willingness to use a dictionary, abilities necessary not only for success in the adult world, but survival.
Overall comprehension is surely better with print, not only because it takes time and allows them to think—if they will try; many don’t—but it involves more of their senses, living in three dimensions rather than two. Without lightning fast scrolling, which allows them to skip over anything that doesn’t immediately register, they’re more likely to better engage a text, perhaps to actually learn something.
The medium doesn’t matter, because they’re well conditioned to answer general questions. With high stakes testing, from Kindergarten to 12thgrade, that’s all they do. Reading a sentence in either format is essentially the same experience, requiring the same skills and brain function.
Better comprehension with printed texts? Hopefully this surprises no one, other than the mindless educrats that think tiny, cheap laptops are “transformational Internet devices” or similarly witless eduspeak rather than tiny, cheap laptops. Printed text requires heightened attention, and forces kids willing to expend the effort to actually think for more than a few seconds at a time. It’s the difference between skimming and actually studying, very short-term storage vs. long term brain development and learning. More is, of course, going on in the brain, but these points summarize the effect.
Alexander and Singer draw logical conclusions. They note that there is no single medium that works best for all purposes, but one can do without computers. One cannot do without the printed word. For reading that requires only identifying and recalling a theme or brief plot synopsis, the medium doesn’t matter, but when real comprehension, the ability to deal with abstraction–significant ideas–and long-term learning are necessary, print is far superior.
They also noted that some kids actually slow down when reading digital text, essentially negating the difference. Clearly, these are self-motivated, serious students that take responsibility for their educations. Alexander and Singer suggest others can be taught to slow down with digital text, but this requires desire and motivation absent outside the small group they mention. Such people are unlikely to change their ways.
Like the authors, I find great value in the printed word. I’m no prepper, but I do stay informed of potential civilization-destroying threats. Without electricity, for even a short time, there is no digital anything. For any extended span without electricity, civilization resides in books, or is lost. They note:
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.
Of course, 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.
Quite so. One should also recall that where texts are involved, digital access is not free. Educational publishers provide it only at premium prices, prices many school districts cannot afford to meet, particularly where they must buy paper texts as well. Why not just go paperless? For the reasons I’ve mentioned, and also because not every student has the devices and access necessary to use digital media. But everyone has that these days! No they don’t. Been there, seen that, got the t-shirt.
Teachers are responsible for providing only the opportunity for kids to educate themselves. The rest is up to the kids and their parents. If schooling consists mainly–or entirely–on reliance on “technology,” all that is happening is schooling. Too many kids—and their parents—don’t know the difference.
Witness innumerable college graduates, or drop outs, leaving college with little more than massive debt. Far too many learn little or nothing, but they’re whizzes with digital devices. In my quarter century teaching career, I’ve lost easily 50% of the curriculum I was once able to teach, partially because educrats think processes and producing data are far more important than learning, but also because kids aren’t readers. Despite having the speed and convenience of digital devices, everything takes far more time to accomplish, including reading.
Digital texts are convenient and trendy. They provide the illusion of learning and “accountability.” But non-readers are handicapped in innumerable ways. Books provide the opportunity for real learning and knowledge, and the preservation of civilization.