Pixels or Ink

“The technology itself is not transformative. It’s the school, the pedagogy, that is transformative.”
Tanya Byron

In an earlier blog post (To Be Digital or Not to Be Digital) I discussed how governments and schools are encouraging the adoption of digital media especially etextbooks (etexts) as a means of controlling cost. However, in most cases, these groups have failed to look at whether or not students want to use these etexts. Because of multiple issues, current students are not adopting etexts at a high rate. However, even if institutions deal with the problems of etext adoption, should we be using etexts?

While cost is an import factor in making education accessible, we need to be careful that cost does not run roughshod over pedagogy. In addition to the questions of whether students will use current etexts, we also need to ask to do etexts work, are etexts a legitimate pedagogical tool? Does it make any difference if words are on paper or screen to the learner? I don’t think written language has been around long enough for the brain to evolve to function exclusively with print.

Modern human evolved between 200,000 to 300,000 years ago in Africa (Smithsonian and UK National History Museum. Around 5200 years ago, humans invented writing. Writing gave us the ability to record complex ideas, theories, and information. Writing has only existed for 2.6% – 1.7% of human existence.

For most of writings existence information was recorded on things like; clay, stone, and paper. Today our writing can also be displayed on screens. While it might not be obvious, there is some evidence that the method of reading on paper vs. electronic screen might make a difference in learning.

Digital reading or more specifically reading on a digital device has many advantages. As Singer & Alexander say in their paper Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal “These paperless classrooms allow the reader to alter the size of the text, highlight important passages, and search related terms outside of the text with the click of a button.”

One of the outcomes from Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal are; students had better comprehension when reading a printed book when the text length was more than one page or screen. Researchers have proposed that scrolling text leads to increased cognitive load, which would negatively impact comprehension.

Interestingly when it came to general comprehension (general or broad topics), there was no difference in basic comprehension between digital and paper texts. However, when it came to specific questions (specific facts, comparisons, and deep understanding), there was better comprehension from paper texts over digital. It is possible that this difference between general and specific content has to do with differences in how students read in a digital vs. paper environment.

When the research was designed to study comprehension between digital and paper reading while reducing cognitive load, there were no significant differences in comprehension between digital and paper. However, it did appear that there was a broader deviation in the digital group then the paper group. (The Effects of Reading Mode on Recall and Comprehension). Why is there a difference between different types of comprehension?

Research into student reading has shown that digital readers have developed different reading habits. In Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years it is shown that digital readers make greater use of short cuts like skimming for keywords, bookmarks, and skimming the text then paper readers. Additionally, it has been shown that it is much easier for students to become distracted by multitasking when using digital texts (David B. Daniel and William Douglas Woody, “E textbooks at what cost? Performance and use of electronic vs. print texts,” Computers in Education, Vol. 62 (March 2013): 18-23)

In addition to a lower rate of adoption of etexts, the current research suggests that etexts, in general, might hurt learning especially deep learning. However, except for the cognitive load because of scrolling, there is little information that shows etexts have a significant (cognitive) adverse effect on learning. I would be interested in variations on this cognitive load of scrolling.

While I have encountered a lot of etexts that require scrolling, especially on the web, I have encountered other types of digital page turning. On my tablet (Samsung Galaxy), I have read books that have the same layout as print books where you flip pages from the edge of the screen. I also have, an e-reader (A dedicated ebook reader) again, the reader uses the same basic layout as a print book, and readers turn pages with small buttons. I would be interested in seeing if these methods of digital reading had the same effect on cognitive load and comprehension as scrolling.

The issues of digital devices leading to more significant amounts of skimming versus in-depth reading and increased multitasking is an issue of training. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that part of a students educational training is teaching them how to study and learn. It may well be that due to external forces, education will convert to the effective use of etexts. While there might be problems with etexts, many of the issues could be dealt with by teaching students how to study and read using etexts. Almost all of the ereaders (both physical and app-based) give students the ability to highlight, take notes, bookmark, and link to additional materials. If we teach students to use these tools, it might be that the comprehension differences will go away. Anyone care to look into it?

Thanks For Listening to my Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

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