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.