Story highlightsDigital education has its benefits, but so does learning in printResearchers found digital reading may be faster but comprehension may be lower
Patricia Alexander is Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, and Lauren Singer is a Ph.D. candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Maryland. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.
(CNN)Today’s students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.
Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We’ve seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks. In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.Many students work digitally now, but some say there are benefits to old-fashioned print. Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students’ familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we’ve found that’s not necessarily true.As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.Speed — at a costRead MoreOur work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.To explore these patterns further, we conducted three studies that explored college students’ ability to comprehend information on paper and from screens. Photos: Bangladesh, solar-powered floating schools – All around the world, schools are reinventing education. During monsoon season in Bangladesh, almost one third of the country is flooded, making school attendance next to impossible. Nonprofit Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha came up with a way to bring education to the children most affected: by creating solar-paneled floating schools. Each morning, the elementary schools travel to different communities, picking up children along the way. The boats then docks and teach up to 30 children at a time. The schools contain a laptop, hundreds of books and electronic resources powered by energy generated from the solar panels. Hide Caption 1 of 10 Photos: UK, virtual reality – Immersive technology is having a big moment in education right now, making its way into classrooms around the world. Among those adopting the technology is Sevenoaks School, in the UK, which has introduced VR into its classrooms for a range of subjects including art, history and geography. Students are using the technology to go on virtual field trips and creating three dimensional paintings that move.Hide Caption 2 of 10 Photos: Bali, going green – As the Green School in Bali demonstrates, innovation doesn’t always equal technology. Nestled between rainforests and made entirely from bamboo, the school’s mission is to educate its students about sustainability by using a holistic approach. Students from nursery to high school learn how to be more environmentally-conscious while studying traditional topics like math and languages. The Green School boasts a diverse student body from all over the world and aims to create the next generation of green leaders. The school runs on three simple principles: be local, let the environment lead and think of your grandchildren’s future. Hide Caption 3 of 10 Photos: Ghana, empower playgrounds – In many parts of rural Ghana, electricity is either limited or unavailable. Students in these areas are unable to study after it gets dark, which hinders their chances of getting into a secondary school. So Empower Playgrounds created merry-go-rounds that use the children’s energy to charge a battery, which then powers a small lantern. Each recharge lasts for over 40 hours and allows students to study in the evening.Hide Caption 4 of 10 Photos: Canada, paper and desk-free classrooms – It’s hard to imagine a classroom without desks and paper but it’s now a reality. In some schools in Canada and the U.S., for example, recent trends of creating more comfortable and open classrooms have seen traditional desks disappear. Instead, bouncy balls, bean bags and seating mats having taken their place, while iPads and computers replace traditional pen and paper. Students submit their work via different tools, such as Google Classroom, and teachers are able to give feedback and mark assignments in real time. Even chalkboards and whiteboards are being replaced by interactive smartboards. Hide Caption 5 of 10 Photos: Netherlands, personalized learning – Steve Jobs Schools are inspired by, but not affiliated with, the Apple founder.Their philosophy is to encourage personalized learning by giving their students, all of primary age, more control. Pupils choose which subjects they study, how they want to learn and at what pace. Teachers are known as coaches and students are grouped not by age but by their strengths and interests. Schedules are flexible and students are each given an iPad. Starting out in the Netherlands, they opened a school in Johannesburg in 2016.Hide Caption 6 of 10 Photos: Sweden, gender-neutral schools – At Egalia preschool in Stockholm, the words “he” and “her” are never used. Boys can play with dolls and girls with firetrucks. There are no designated areas for each gender and books are carefully selected to avoid traditional stereotyping. Egalia and other similar preschools in Sweden, reject gender stereotypes and hope to help children fight societal gender norms, which they believe can hinder growth and acceptance. Hide Caption 7 of 10 Photos: Singapore, robot teachers – Pepper is a robot that interacts with students and answers their questions. Introduced last year as part of a pilot project in Singapore, Pepper helped preschool teachers deliver lessons and told pupils stories. Teachers reported that the robot helped shy students come out of their shell and created a fun, interactive atmosphere to learn in.Hide Caption 8 of 10 Photos: Denmark, forest preschools – While nature-centered schools are not uncommon around the world, in Denmark teaching children the importance of Mother Nature starts at a very young age. According to the Danish Forest and Nature Agency, over 10 percent of Danish preschools are located in forests or other natural settings. These schools use their surroundings as teaching tools, where eating organic food, hiking and raising chickens are all part of the daily lessons. Proponents of forest preschools say that children develop better motor skills when there is more space and time to play in nature rather than sitting in a classroom. Hide Caption 9 of 10 Photos: USA, the world as your classroom – Students at the THINK Global School in New York spend each semester in a different nation. They learn languages and in each new place they visit, they work with local experts to gain insights into the historical, cultural, and socioeconomic aspects of their host country. Destinations for the 2018-19 school year include India, Botswana, Japan and Spain.Hide Caption 10 of 10Students first rated their medium preferences. After reading two passages, one online and one in print, these students then completed three tasks: Describe the main idea of the texts, list key points covered in the readings and provide any other relevant content they could recall. When they were done, we asked them to judge their comprehension performance.Read: Who are the world’s most valued teachers?Across the studies, the texts differed in length, and we collected varying data (e.g., reading time). Nonetheless, some key findings emerged that shed new light on the differences between reading printed and digital content:Students overwhelming preferred to read digitally.Reading was significantly faster online than in print.Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.The medium didn’t matter for general questions (like understanding the main idea of the text).But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.Putting print in perspectiveFrom these findings, there are some lessons that can be conveyed to policymakers, teachers, parents and students about print’s place in an increasingly digital world.1. Consider the purposeWe all read for many reasons. Sometimes we’re looking for an answer to a very specific question. Other times, we want to browse a newspaper for today’s headlines.Students the world over use technology as part of their education.As we’re about to pick up an article or text in a printed or digital format, we should keep in mind why we’re reading. There’s likely to be a difference in which medium works best for which purpose.In other words, there’s no “one medium fits all” approach.2. Analyze the taskOne of the most consistent findings from our research is that, for some tasks, medium doesn’t seem to matter. If all students are being asked to do is to understand and remember the big idea or gist of what they’re reading, there’s no benefit in selecting one medium over another.But when the reading assignment demands more engagement or deeper comprehension, students may be better off reading print. Teachers could make students aware that their ability to comprehend the assignment may be influenced by the medium they choose. This awareness could lessen the discrepancy we witnessed in students’ judgments of their performance vis-à-vis how they actually performed.Read: School bans the words ‘boy’ and ‘girl’3. Slow it downIn our third experiment, we were able to create meaningful profiles of college students based on the way they read and comprehended from printed and digital texts.Among those profiles, we found a select group of undergraduates who actually comprehended better when they moved from print to digital. What distinguished this atypical group was that they actually read slower when the text was on the computer than when it was in a book. In other words, they didn’t take the ease of engaging with the digital text for granted. Using this select group as a model, students could possibly be taught or directed to fight the tendency to glide through online texts.There should always be a place for print in students’ lives, say the authors. 4. Something that can’t be measuredThere may be economic and environmental reasons to go paperless. But there’s clearly something important that would be lost with print’s demise.In our academic lives, we have books and articles that we regularly return to. The dog-eared pages of these treasured readings contain lines of text etched with questions or reflections. It’s difficult to imagine a similar level of engagement with a digital text. There should probably always be a place for print in students’ academic lives — no matter how technologically savvy they become.Of course, we realize that the march toward online reading will continue unabated. And we don’t want to downplay the many conveniences of online texts, which include breadth and speed of access.Rather, our goal is simply to remind today’s digital natives — and those who shape their educational experiences — that there are significant costs and consequences to discounting the printed word’s value for learning and academic development.