My friend Joanne was packing her youngest child off to college this month and wrestling with a modern dilemma: Is it better to buy textbooks in digital form or old-fashioned print? One of her son’s professors was recommending an online text for a business course: lighter, always accessible and seriously cheaper ($88 vs. $176 for a 164-page book). But Joanne’s instinct was that her son would “learn better” from a printed volume, free of online distractions, and with pages he could dog-ear, peruse in any order, and inscribe with marginal notes. Her son was inclined to agree.
Many of us book lovers cherish the tactile qualities of print, but some of this preference is emotional or nostalgic. Do reading and note-taking on paper offer any measurable advantages for learning? Given the high cost of hard-backed textbooks, is it wiser to save the money and the back strain by going digital?
You might think that, decades into the digital revolution, we would have a clear answer to this question. Wrong. Earlier this year educational psychologist Patricia Alexander, a literacy scholar at the University of Maryland, published a thorough review of recent research on the topic. She was “shocked,” she says, to find that out of 878 potentially relevant studies published between 1992 and 2017, only 36 directly compared reading in digital and in print and measured learning in a reliable way. (Many of the other studies zoomed in on aspects of e-reading, such as eye movements or the merits of different kinds of screens.)
Aside from pointing up a blatant need for more research, Alexander’s review, co-authored with doctoral student Lauren Singer and appearing in Review of Educational Research, affirmed at least one practical finding: if you are reading something lengthy – more than 500 words or more than a page of the book or screen – your comprehension will likely take a hit if you’re using a digital device. The finding was supported by numerous studies and held true for students in college, high school and grade school.
Research suggests that the explanation is at least partly the greater physical and mental demands of reading on a screen: the nuisance of scrolling, and the tiresome glare and flicker of some devices. There may be differences in the concentration we bring to a digital environment, too, where we are accustomed to browsing and multitasking. And some researchers have observed that working your way through a print volume leaves spatial impressions that stick in your mind (for instance, the lingering memory of where a certain passage or diagram appeared in a book).
Of 878 potentially relevant studies published between 1992 and 2017, only 36 directly compared reading in digital to reading in print, and measured learning in a reliable way.
Alexander and Singer have done their own studies of the digital versus print question. In a 2016 experiment they asked 90 undergraduates to read short informational texts (about 450 words) on a computer and in print. Due to the length, no scrolling was required, but there still was a difference in how much they absorbed. The students performed equally well in describing the main idea of the passages no matter the medium, but when asked to list additional key points and recall further details, the print readers had the edge.
Curiously, the students themselves were unaware of this advantage. In fact, after answering comprehension questions, 69% said they believed they had performed better after reading on a computer. Researchers call this failure of insight poor “calibration.”
The point of such research, as Alexander herself notes, is not to anoint a winner in a contest between digital and print. We all swim in a sea of electronic information and there’s no turning back the tide.
“The core question,” Alexander said in an interview, is “when is a reader best served by a particular medium. And what kind of readers? What age? What kind of text are we talking about? All of those elements matter a great deal.”
On top of that, we all could do with a lot more self-awareness about how we learn from reading.
For example, a big reason that students in the study thought they learned better from digital text is that they moved more quickly in that medium. Research by Alexander and others has confirmed this faster pace. “They assume that because they were going faster, they understood it better,” Alexander observes. “It’s an illusion.”
If students become aware of this illusion, they can make better choices. Just as they might decide to turn off social media alerts while studying an online textbook, they might want to consciously slow themselves down when reading for deep meaning. On the other hand, when reading for pleasure or surface information, they can let ’er rip.
Digital text makes it easy for students to copy and paste key passages into a document for further study, but there is little research on how this compares with taking notes by hand.
“They assume that because they were going faster [reading digitally], they understood it better. It’s an illusion.”
Patricia Alexander, literacy scholar at the University of Maryland
“We study things like highlighting and underlining,” Alexander says, “but those kind of motor responses have never been of highest value in terms of text-processing strategies” – whether done with a cursor or a marker. The studying strategy with “the greatest power,” she adds, involves deeply questioning the text — asking yourself if you agree with the author, and why or why not.
Dutch scholar Joost Kircz points out that these are still early days for digital reading, and new and better formats will continue to emerge. In his view, the linear format of a traditional book is well suited for narratives but not necessarily ideal for academic texts or scientific papers.
“In narrative prose fiction, the author strictly determines the reading path,” he and co-author August Hans Den Boef write in The Unbound Book, a collection of essays about the future of reading. “But in a digital environment we can easily enable a plurality of reading paths in educational and scholarly texts.”
In addition to the hyperlinks, video and audio that currently enhance many digital texts, Kircz would like to see innovations such as multiple types of hyperlinks, perhaps in a rainbow of colors that denote specific purposes (annotation, elaboration, contrary views, media, etc.). He also imagines digital books that could enable a variety of paths through a body of work. Not all information is linear or even layered, he told me: “There’s a lot of information that’s spherical. You cannot stack it up. The question is to what extent can we mimic human understanding?”
While we await those future digital products, students deciding what school books to buy this fall would do well to ask themselves just what they hope to get from the text. As Alexander notes, “If I’m only trying to learn something that’s going to be covered on a test and the test is shallow in nature, then [digital] is just fine.” If, on the other hand, you hope to dive in deeply and gather imperishable pearls, spring for the book.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, the nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
The Future Of Digital Textbooks Essay
879 Words4 Pages
“Ripe for digital destruction,” (A Textbook) were words of the late Steve Jobs referring to the enormous potential for the textbooks industry. He believed the textbook market to be worth an estimated 8 billion dollars in the U.S. alone. His vision was to lessen the burden of carrying heavy textbooks around, while also offering them as a free feature with the iPad. He wanted to change the culture of textbooks forever. The essay “What are the Enablers and Barriers to Successful Adoption and Commercialization of Digital Textbooks,” discusses the many benefits and drawback of transitioning to digital textbooks. The essay asserts that digital textbooks are on the rise and that there is a good probability they will overtake printed textbooks…show more content…
Electronic textbooks are more portable and convenient as they can be accessed by a tablet, downloaded onto a computer or accessed via the internet. The technological benefits available on an electronic textbook are endless. The audio and video capabilities will liven up learning and change the way students understand and retain the material. The emergence of three-dimensional technology may also play a role in the near future. In addition, digital textbooks are much more user friendly. Studying for tests will be more efficient as highlighted notes can be easily transferred into electronic note cards for memorization. The main downside to electronic textbooks is that students will have to purchase a reading device, tablet, laptop or smartphone in order to view digital textbooks away from home or on the go. Most college students have already made this investment prior to starting college. The seller of digital textbooks will also be saving money over producing hard copies. 32% of the cost allocated to paper, printing and editorial can be completely eliminated along with 22.4% of costs related to bookstore operations and personnel. Bookstores as we know them could become obsolete or transformed into stores that sell tablets, e-readers and software packages on campus. Publishers or sellers will now be able to tap into a more global market with electronic textbooks as the information can be translated into many languages quickly.