What You Should Know This Week

Digital versus Print. Each week, Educating Modern Learners picks one interesting current event – whether it’s news about education, technology, politics, business, science, or culture – and helps put it in context for school leaders, explaining why the news matters and how it might affect teaching and learning (in the short or in the long run). This week (the week of February 23), Audrey Watters looks at a recent study that explores students’ preferences for books in print.


Again and again and again, when students are surveyed about their reading preferences, they say they prefer books in print to digital versions. So the findings in a new book by Naomi Baron, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

A linguistics professor at American University, Baron surveyed 300 college students in the US , Japan, Germany, and Slovakia, and almost all expressed a preference for print – particularly for “serious reading.”

When we read digital materials, we tend to skim and scan – that’s not really conducive to studying. And among the “features” of print that students consistently say they like best: “It takes me longer because I read more carefully.” Students also report being more focused with print. When studying using a digital textbook, 90% of students reported multitasking; when studying with a print textbook, just 1% did.

In an interview with The New Republic, Baron explained some of the students’ resistance to e-books:

There are two big issues. The first was they say they get distracted, pulled away to other things. The second had to do with eye strain and headaches and physical discomfort.

When I asked what they don’t like about reading on a screen—they like to know how far they’ve gone in the book. You can read at the bottom of the screen what percent you’ve finished, but it’s a totally different feel to know you’ve read an inch worth and you have another inch and a half to go. Or students will tell you about their visual memory of where something was on the page; that makes no sense on a screen. One student said, “I keep forgetting who the author is. In a print book all I have to do is flip back and I see it.” There are all kinds of reasons students will give—“I have a sense of accomplishment when I finish a book and I want to see it on the shelf.” They care about the smell of a book. In the Slovakian data, when I asked what do you like most about reading in hard copy, one out of ten talked about the smell of books. There really is a physical, tactile, kinesthetic component to reading.

Although e-books, including digital textbooks, have added to new features to make them more attractive to readers – the ability to add highlights, the ability to search the entire corpus – these are secondary to students, who still prefer making their own notes and being able to flip to indexes and Tables of Content. And neither print not digital textbooks have managed to address the big problem that college students face: the rising cost. (That is, digital textbooks tend not to be much cheaper.)

Often we tell a story of technology that posits it’s all inevitable: e-books will mean the end of print; computers will mean the end of paper. But technology development and technology adoption do not necessarily march forward like that. We also assume that younger students – labeled “digital natives” as The Washington Post does in its coverage of Baron’s book – necessarily want more technology because they’re more comfortable and more adept with it.

“My major concern,” Baron told TNR, “as a person in higher education, is that we’re not listening. We’re assuming we’re being helpful by lowering price, by making it more convenient, by helping the environment, but we don’t bother asking our students what they think.”

Image credit: Holtsman

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