Studies show we all read more today than in previous generations. While printed books and magazines are still a part of our lives, much of our reading consumption is digital.
While technology innovation allows education to reach many students more efficiently, some educators worry that it is also limiting some students’ skills. At the forefront of this is reading literacy, comprehension and other critical skills.
Digital reading is changing the way we read, suggested Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at the University of California, Los Angeles, at February’s Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco.
Wolf postulated “that one of the threats of this shift is that it will hurt humans’ ability for deep reading, which she describes as involving empathy, background knowledge, critical analysis, imagery and reflection,” Sydney Johnson reported Feb. 18, 2019 in “Reading Fuels Empathy. Do Screens Threaten That?”
“The sum of these processes helps prepare citizens to be critical thinkers and empathetic — or not,” Wolf said.
Wolf and others worry that this lack of connection could seriously affect students’ future.
“We are in this moment where ‘other’ is becoming a threat,” Wolf said at the February conference. “The compassionate imagination of childhood begins with understanding that there are others outside of ourselves. We have never needed the role of story more than right now for our children to understand a compassionate sense.”
Studies back up Wolf’s assertions. Geoff F. Kaufman of Carnegie Mellon University and Mary Flanagan of Dartmouth College found that students’ decision processes change when approaching a problem digitally vs. in print.
Utilizing a board game format — or that same game translated to an iPad — they tested subjects’ ability to prevent a health outbreak. Flanagan and Kaufman were surprised when their study showed that analog users communicated significantly more with their teammates and performed better than digital users.
“[T]he app-game players focused on dealing with immediate, local outbreaks of disease. Those playing the board game were more likely to keep a ‘big picture view’ of which people outside an immediate outbreak might be vulnerable, and they worked together more as a team. Overall, the board game players were better at stopping the outbreak and winning the game,” Kaufman and Flanagan said in May 2016 Education Week report.
This is concerning. Today’s classrooms throughout all levels of education are not ruled by just paper and pencils, but also through keyboard and tablet. Because of this, ultimately the discussion cannot be about “Screens vs. Print,” but where to utilize each more effectively.
Pros and Cons
Flanagan and Kaufman researched further and tested subjects with other tasks either online or in print. They found some pros and cons to both media.
In their studies, digital readers recalled concrete facts and details better than print readers. But print readers scored better when asked to infer meaning and relationships, or ponder abstract concepts.
Other studies found that “students who typed notes on their laptops rather than writing them on paper tended to take down information verbatim rather than summarizing concepts.” Those who summarized the concepts, rather than recording them verbatim, remembered more a week later.
Many educators find digital content is often more engaging for reluctant readers than a sheet of paper or a book. Unfortunately, these same readers tend to skim while reading online, and do not comprehend the text as deeply, or “construct complex arguments, or make connections to their own experiences,” according to a 2014 Education Week article.
We cannot ban technology from the classroom, though.
“It is fair to say that reading digitally is part and parcel of living and learning in the 21st century .… No matter how complex the question of reading across mediums may be, teachers and students must understand how and when to employ a digital reading device,” said Lauren Singer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, and Patricia Alexander, a University of Maryland professor, in a 2017 Inside Higher Ed article.
Singer, Alexander, Wolf, Flanagan, Kaufman and other researchers hope more study will lead to ways of helping students develop what Wolf calls a “bi-literate” brain, where they can benefit from the assets of both medium.
For now, these experts suggest teachers use a hybrid approach.
“There are many times when you are trying to get students to compare facts and figures. If you are making a timeline for World War II, it might be really great to have digital technology to optimize comprehension of details like that,” Flanagan said in the 2016 article. “But when you want students to think more analytically about something, especially when you are asking something new — ‘How would you compare what happened in World War II to the Gulf War,’ say — that may require a shift in thinking. You may want to get off the screen for that for a little while.”