‘There’s No Easy Answer’

A scholarly report states students may not comprehend complex text in a digital format as well as in print. Other educators argue both formats have value.

August 16, 2017
 
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When Lauren Singer, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, was a student teacher, she observed a kindergarten class as the children learned how to read “like you and I did.” Then their teacher told them to read silently for a while and handed each student an iPad.

“It blew my mind,” Singer recalled. “They were being taught the same, but given a different thing to read.”

Singer’s notion -- then and now -- is that reading a computer screen requires a different set of skills than reading on paper. “I hope in the future, we have a clearer understanding of what students are doing differently when they are reading digitally,” she said. “It’s not taught as if it’s different.”

In a review of educational research published by SAGE Journals in July, Singer and University of Maryland professor Patricia Alexander discovered that readers may not comprehend complex or lengthy material as well when they view it digitally as when they read it on paper. While they concluded with a call for more research, the pair wrote, “It is fair to say that reading digitally is part and parcel of living and learning in the 21st century … No matter how complex the question of reading across mediums may be, teachers and students must understand how and when to employ a digital reading device.”

In an interview with “Inside Digital Learning,” Singer confirmed, “Digital devices aren’t going anywhere. This no longer is a question of, ‘Will the digital device be in your classroom?’ but ‘What do we know about the digital device, and how can we make this equal to print?’”

Singer, who is studying human development and quantitative methodology, suggested that professors should teach students -- who learned to read printed, not digital, material when they were children -- “how to navigate the readings.”

For example, she said instructors should take the time to show students how to annotate a PDF and make them aware that most people read more quickly on a screen than in print and therefore could lose some comprehension. She also suggested that teachers ask students to answer, in one sentence, what the overall point of the text was every time they read a chapter or an article online.

More importantly, she said, is for professors to determine which kinds of readings are suitable for digital delivery. “Sometimes students only need to get the main idea,” Singer said, “and then digital is just as good as print and a lot quicker … But if you want deep comprehension and synthesis of the material, have the students print it out and navigate the material that way. Think about what you want students to get out of a lesson” before assigning a printed or digital reading.

Students Should Choose

An English professor, Wayne Kobylinski, said his Anne Arundel Community College students in Maryland choose for themselves. “For the most part, the students opt to get the print versions” of novels and textbooks for his class, Kobylinski said. “If someone says, ‘Can I use the ebook?’ I say that’s fine.”

Kobylinski said his students feel printed material “carries more of a sense of gravitas” than digital. “That makes sense for college students.”

He explained that because students spend so much time reading online communications on social media, where writing is casual, they figure, “If I use electronic writing for informal things, then electronic writing is inherently informal, so it’s not as important … They can skip it.”

Professor Jody Donovan, who teaches in Colorado State University’s school of education, said her graduate students overwhelmingly prefer “everything electronic. They don’t want a hard copy of anything, and our faculty always wants both.”

Donovan has observed that her online students tend to refer to the digital readings more frequently than those in her face-to-face classes refer to the print versions. “Having it online allows them to read it multiple times, whereas I often see if it’s printed, students will read it once and be done with it.

“Does that mean comprehension is better because it’s in print and they only need to refer to it once? I don’t know.”

Donovan added, “I do agree that we’ve got to figure this out … because it isn’t going away, for sure, for lots of reasons: accessibility, cost, sustainability. We have to figure out how we can support students in comprehending from this format.”

“There’s no easy answer,” said Lance Eaton, an instructional designer at Brandeis University. But he said he believes “we can still get as much meaning out of digital text. We just haven’t found the right transitions to do what we actually do with a physical book, with digital text … We haven’t found the digital equivalent of interacting with text. We haven’t really trained people to do that.”

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