E-Reading & Education

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While there is considerable push to move education onto the internet and textbooks are readily available as e-books, there are still reasonable concerns about the impact of the shift from paper text to digital text. Fortunately, there have been some studies and experiments to determine the impact of digital text.

Ferris Jabr’s article, “Why the Brain Prefers Paper”, appears in the November 2013 issues of Scientific American and raises some points well worth considering. While he is not writing explicitly about e-text in education, the findings discussed in the article are clearly relevant in academics.

One finding is that paper text seems to be better than e-text in terms of comprehension and memory. That is, people who read text on paper tend to have a better understanding of the material and remember it better. One possible reason for this is that a paper text allows people to navigate the material using abilities that they have developed in the “physical” world. The physicality of the paper text is thus an advantage. A second reason is that people also seem to be better at creating mental maps of long texts when they read it on paper. This also seems to be linked to the physicality of the paper text.

Another finding is that e-text can tire both the mind and the body. One obvious example is that scrolling text requires more effort than simply reading and turning actual pages. This can be avoided by software or hardware that allows reading without scrolling. For example, dedicated reader devices like the Nook allow the reader to “turn” pages rather than scroll. Another obvious example is that staring at a screen is more tiring than reading text on paper. As with scrolling, dedicated reader devices endeavor this problem by trying to replicate the experience of paper. For example, the Kindle uses an E-Ink display that creates a paper-like visual experience in that it uses reflected rather than projected light.

Because of these factors, it is hardly surprising that the studies and experiments generally indicate that reading digital text is inferior to reading paper text in regards to matters that are of concern in academics such as understanding, retention and performance on tests on the material. In short, the use of digital text puts the reader at a disadvantage relative to using paper text.

It might be claimed that the problems with digital text are primarily caused by the fact that the people studied grew up reading on paper and thus have a paper bias. If this is true, then the generation that grows up reading digital text will not experience the same problems as those who grew up with paper.

Interestingly, studies of people who are “digital natives” indicate that even they do better with paper than with digital text. One explanation for this is that the e-book and e-readers are distracting. However, these studies are still preliminary and more time will be needed to determine the impact of being a digital native on reading.

The apparent inferiority of digital text relative to paper text should be a matter of concern for educators. If an educator is choosing between digital and paper text, these findings would indicate that the paper text is a better choice in regards to understanding and remembering the material. If an educator is relying entirely or primarily on digital text, then these findings suggest that the grading would actually need to be adjusted in regards to testing that involves understanding and remembering text—students using digital texts will, in general, perform worse than those using paper texts. Then again, they would actually be learning less and thus the lower grade could be regarded as justified, but not the fault of the student.

While paper does seem to be superior to digital in many ways, there are still advantages to digital text that educators should consider. One is that a digital text is better than no text. Like most professors, I have found that students often do not buy the text. Not surprisingly, students often claimed that it was the cost of the book that deterred them. In response, I created free PDF readers using public domain material (which is very easy to do in philosophy). While paper text might be better than digital, a digital text is better than no text (and students can print the text, although they rarely do). Digital texts that are not free do tend to be cheaper than printed versions, which might result in more students actually reading the text.

A second advantage is the convenience of digital texts. When I was a student, I had to lug around a book bag full of my books and notes. That was a bit inconvenient and I, like most students, ditched that bag as soon as I could. With digital texts a student can carry a vast number of books with her in her phone, tablet, e-reader, or laptop. As such, a student can read digital texts without the hassle of carrying around a stack of books. On the downside, students generally seem to prefer to text, Facebook or game rather than read and these distractions are always present on most devices. As such, the convenience of e-text could be outweighed by the distraction factor. While my books were heavy, they did not include built in distractions—printed books do not receive texts or allow one to get birds that are angry (except by throwing books at them—which should not be done).

In any case, the shift to e-text is ongoing and inevitable. That said, educators need to give the impact of this transition considerable thought in regards to selecting texts and assessing student performance.

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  1. “On the downside, students generally seem to prefer to text, Facebook or game rather than read and these distractions are always present on most devices.”

    Kids these days. It’s all chattering on text and facebook. Not like the old days, when all we had was papyrus and palimpsest fashioned from goats’ bladder.

    The old days

    “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

    The reality is the ebook is to the physical object, what the combustion engine was to the horse. Yes, the horse looks nicer, and you can have a relationship with it in a way a greasy engine block will never truly win your heart; but the age of chivalry is dead. And there is no use in flogging a dead horse.

  2. E-reading is inseparately associated with information overload.

    30 years ago I bought the morning paper and after an hour of reading, I was up-to-date on the news (for the purposes of being an “informed” citizen and of conversing with other citizens) until the next morning edition. If there were a crisis, I turned on the radio or the TV.

    Now, being up-to-date on the news is a relentless, never-ending process and the news changes so fast that I can barely finish a short article before I begin another.

    Hence, the association of E-reading with information overload. In order to keep up, I have to skim and constantly be ahead of myself, thinking of what I’ll read next while I’m reading an article.

    Probably, everyone has heard Woody Allen’s joke about reading fast. If not, well, I just took a speed reading course. I read War and Peace in an hour. It’s about Russia.

    30 years if I were to read Plato’s Republic, I bought it in a bookstore or got it out of the library. It would take me several days to read it, during which I probably would read little else besides the morning paper. If I were interested in a secondary source about the Republic, I would have to walk back to the library, climb the stairs, look in the card catalogue, find my pencil, note the number on a pad, etc. etc.

    Today if I e-read the Republic, I’m overwhelmed with links, with information about Plato, about the Republic, about ancient Greece, about what Professor X said about what professor Y said about what Professor Z said about the Republic. It’s more than I can assimilate and as a result, I assimilate little.

    I wonder if I were to e-read the Republic as I once did the physical book, without links, without the Stanford Encyclopedia, without Wikipedia, without podcasts, without blogs, etc.. If that were possible, I might well assimilate as much from the e-book as I once did from the physical book.

  3. email follow-up

  4. E-Reading & Education « Abseits.cibis.de « cibis.de - pingback on November 27, 2013 at 6:35 am
  5. Hi Amos,

    In case you’d like to but can’t access the original article (Mike’s link aeems to go to a pay-wall) you might try going here:


  6. Jim:

    It’s so great to hear from you.

    Thanks for the link.

    When are we going to have the pleasure of reading your thoughts again? I really enjoyed and profited from your blogging.

  7. Jim:

    I tend to be very skeptical of this type of study.
    (Please don’t ask me what I mean by “this type of study”.)

    People bring a lot of associations to e-reading as they do to reading physical books, and for me, as a long-time book-reader, reading a book is a pleasure and e-reading is a chore, besides the fact that, as I pointed out above, I associate e-reading with information over-load, with a pressure to assimilate more information than I can handle.

    I think that lots of people may have such associations, even so-called “digital natives” who grew up in families and were educated by teachers who were not digital natives.

    We’re going to have to wait several generations before we have true digital natives.

    In any case, thanks again for sending the article.

  8. Hi Amos,

    Thank you for the kind words but I think it unlikely I will be trying my hand at blogging again anytime soon.

    You are, of course, most welcome for the link.

    I don’t think I’ve much to say on the topic of this post but hope we might converse again on the threads soon.

  9. Yes, current e-readers are very limiting for those of us who want to delve deeply into content. I have
    described some of the challenges posed by the Kindle here.

    However, we can’t simply say that paper is better than e-text, or vice versa. Results will depend on the learning strategies that people use.

    Most students and most professors have not been taught how to adapt their learning strategies to ebook readers.

    I’ve written a book on the subject: some of the Cognitive Productivity: The Art and Science of Using Knowledge to Become Profoundly Effective. . Part 1 describes the problems we face in trying to learn with technology. Part 2 describes the relevant cognitive science. Part 3 proposes solutions.

    If students have the right training, I think we will find that they (at least the most “effectant” ones) do much better with (the right) technology. Same applies to their professors.

  10. Jim Houston,

    Thanks for the direct link.

  11. JMRC,

    True-the kids are always distracted by something.

    That said, a person reading on a tablet, PC or smartphone has temptations right at hand in a way that the folks of the past did not.

    In some ways, I do like that students use the smartphones. A person quietly texting or Facebooking away in my class is much less disruptive than a student chatting away or flipping through a newspaper.

  12. Never having tried one of these things, I recently borrowed an old Nook and after trying it out – though I find it quite different from reading a printed book (a thing I’ve done too little of in recent years) – I think I may well end treating myself to one of these e-reading devices (though I think I’d look into something newer with a more ‘paper-like visual experience’).

    Certainly I’ve found it better than trying to read things of length on my laptop (something I’ve done too much of in recent years) and it does seem to me that some of the minus points about reading off a ‘standard’ computer screen don’t or can’t be assumed to apply to these (newer) nook/kindle e-readers. (In my own case a big advantage over the laptop is that it isn’t so very easy to get distracted and end up flitting from one thing to another thus I don’t know that I’d want an e-reader that had too much of the functionality of a computer).

    It is impressive what you can find to read for very little cost or indeed free online. And there does seem something to be said for being able to carry around a whole library in your jacket pocket.

  13. Hi Mike,

    Thanks so much for your blog, by the way- I’ve been reading it for some small while now and you’ve always an interesting take on subjects.

    With regards to e-readers, I’ve recently finished a year in a part-time graduate course where I had the chance to get and use on a few devices the kindle, ibook, pdf, and real paper formats, and compare them all. This is entirely anecdotal, but as it will be a while before ‘the results are in’ on long-term impacts of the new formats, this seemed as good a time and place as any to share.

    First and foremost, as a part-time student the digital formats win, hands-down, just because of their greater portability. Without access to long hours alone at a library, my personal life didn’t avail me of an undistracted environment in any case, mooting that concern, and increasing the importance of how easy it was to find a place and time to read.
    Navigating through a digital work was initially more difficult, without the general tactile and visual cues to know how far through the text you are. For philosophy, where flipping back and forth between the start and end of a lengthy argument is often necessary, this is a negative.
    Yet what was surprisingly important was the format implementation; not all e-books are created equal, and I quickly found myself gravitating to Kindle books because of the greater ease in searching back and forth in the device, highlighting passages, and taking notes. The e-paper device was cheap, and contrast wasn’t incredible, but for accomplishing a lot of reading during commute time it won over every classic book I had.

    Some random points:

    Onboard ‘at-a-touch’ dictionaries were especially useful for some of the more exotic terms. Yet there were still failures; it was damnably difficult to use and cite any text longer than a sentence because of the copy protections that they put in place. I was actually reduced to by-hand transcription of Matter and Consciousness for a class paper I was writing, but considering that this isn’t far removed from using an actual book it was only a negative in contrast to that other useful format: PDFs.

    Technologically speaking, PDFs can be both incredibly useful developed files which can be copied from, hyperlinked, and with the right software I could take notes just as easily on what I was reading. Or they can be terrible, terrible works of badly-encoded ancient OCR results, as our course’s 300 A4-printed-and-bound-page study guide and appendix were. PDFs also are terribly handled on the basic Kindles, so I turned to using an iPad instead. I’m not sure how it may have affected my concentration, but this helped me to pick up and read something around twenty times the number of additional papers I’d never read in my undergraduate days due to the necessity of printing them all out by hand and keeping them organized for later citation.
    In some rare cases, the PDFs were so badly encoded that I could not highlight a portion of text correctly, but in general this wasn’t an issue.

    So to sum up, for the purposes of longer texts, perhaps there’s an impact on recall, but re-reading could possibly mitigate that problem. Moreover, for philosophy I’ve always had difficulty reading very long stretches without mulling over the latest section, and I don’t believe I’m alone in that practice. Thus the biggest problems to my mind are simply publication issues, because the digital formats have vastly lowered the barrier to entry on reading.

  14. Are we Doomed to Read with Information Technology? | CogZest - pingback on November 9, 2015 at 8:29 pm

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