As many schools across the county are turning to e-readers and sometimes exclusively online textbooks, I am wondering if they are missing some learning benefits of paper textbooks for students.
From USA Today about a school in New York that has converted to an entirely digital library system:
“That backpack is going to be much lighter this year. Stepinac in White Plains has become one of the first high schools in the country to drop all textbooks like dead weight and replace them with a ‘digital library.’ When students started classes Monday, they were zipping to an app or website on their tablet or laptop and had instant access to all 40 texts in the Stepinac curriculum, not to mention all sorts of note-taking, highlighting and interactive features.” …
“Stepinac officials worked for a year with Pearson, the education company that has long dominated the textbook world, to design and create a unique digital library that is bound to be studied by other private and public schools.”…
“Students can search for what they want, just like with Google, so now we can teach them to interpret and analyze the information,” said Matthew Hogan, social studies chairperson.”…
“A teacher can show a page from a digital book on an interactive whiteboard at the front of the class or send students a link to a particular math problem, with the teacher’s notes added in.”
There is no doubt the digital textbooks are cheaper. Students at the Stepinac school paid $700 for textbooks previously and this year only $150 for access to the digital library. However, is this the best way for students to learn? Are there learning advantages to paper versus screens?
I am on computers all day long reading, writing and analyzing information but when I really have to understand and retain something I want it on paper.
The digital media class that I teach at the local college is in theory paperless, but I do provide certain information to my students on hard copies. When I am teaching a new software program, I will post the notes online but I also hand them a paper copy so they can mark it up and fully take it in.
When I am learning something new I don’t want to toggle between screens for directions. I want to be able to looks down at a paper copy and do what I need to do on the computer. I also want to be able to mark up my paper with notes to myself.
Last spring, we were getting a new version of a textbook for the class I was teaching. We didn’t have a had copy so they said, “Oh you can get it online and prepare from that version,” and I hated it! I am used to collecting information online. I am used to working and writing online, but for the purpose of preparing lesson plans and studying I wanted a print version.
As it turns out, my instincts about how I comprehend and retain information better from paper rings true with what researchers have found.
“Since at least the 1980s researchers in many different fields—including psychology, computer engineering, and library and information science—have investigated such questions in more than one hundred published studies. The matter is by no means settled. Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens. And recent surveys suggest that although most people still prefer paper—especially when reading intensively—attitudes are changing as tablets and e-reading technology improve and reading digital books for facts and fun becomes more common. In the U.S., e-books currently make up between 15 and 20 percent of all trade book sales.”…
“Even so, evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people’s attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper….”
“Beyond treating individual letters as physical objects, the human brain may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure. The exact nature of such representations remains unclear, but they are likely similar to the mental maps we create of terrain—such as mountains and trails—and of man-made physical spaces, such as apartments and offices. Both anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appeared. We might recall that we passed the red farmhouse near the start of the trail before we started climbing uphill through the forest; in a similar way, we remember that we read about Mr. Darcy rebuffing Elizabeth Bennett on the bottom of the left-hand page in one of the earlier chapters.”
With books you get left page and right page and eight corners on which to associate the information. Just like we navigate a map by what comes before and after, you do that with reading. But you can’t do that on an e-reader generally.
Other studies show the reading from e-readers and PDF’s don’t allow students to look forward or back or notate. The researchers found it doesn’t give them enough control over the text.
If they really want to dive in and “understand with clarity” then they want to read it on paper.
“Because of these preferences—and because getting away from multipurpose screens improves concentration—people consistently say that when they really want to dive into a text, they read it on paper. In a 2011 survey of graduate students at National Taiwan University, the majority reported browsing a few paragraphs online before printing out the whole text for more in-depth reading. A 2008 survey of millennials (people born between 1980 and the early 2000s) at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island concluded that, “when it comes to reading a book, even they prefer good, old-fashioned print”. And in a 2003 study conducted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, nearly 80 percent of 687 surveyed students preferred to read text on paper as opposed to on a screen in order to “understand it with clarity”.
The article reports that when reading on screens people are less likely to use “metacognitive learning regulation,” which are strategies such as setting a goal and checking how well you are understanding along the way.
Researchers say it’s not just comprehension but also long-term memory and they find the e-readers make it harder.
So I really think schools should rethink completely doing away with textbooks or maybe give students options. There seems to be a lot of value in paper versus just e-readers and screens.
What do you think? What have your kids’ or students’ experiences been with digital textbooks? Do you think they concentrate or comprehend as well? Do they retain what they are reading? How do they digest and annotate the text if they need to? How should school balance the financial aspect versus the learning? Has your school switched to digital textbooks?