Print books have an important advantage over digital ones, encouraging more attentive reading. And if there’s anything in short supply among students these days, it’s attentiveness.
When it comes to trendy new computer technologies, schools have long had a tendency to buy first and ask questions later. That seems to be the case once again with e-readers and other tablet-style computers, which many educators and politicians are promoting as a replacement for printed textbooks.
A private high school in Massachusetts has already removed all the books from its library. Students read from computers and Kindles instead. This year, the Florida legislature passed a bill requiring the state’s schools to replace all paper textbooks with digital editions by 2016. Augusta, Maine, is even planning on giving its kindergartners iPads for the coming school year.
In theory, the benefits of electronic textbooks seem clear and compelling. They can be updated quickly with new information. They promise cost savings, at least over the long haul. They reduce paper and photocopier use. And they’re lightweight, freeing students from the torso-straining load of book-filled backpacks.
But schools may want to pause before jumping on the e-book bandwagon. Recent studies suggest that printed books continue to have important advantages over digital ones. Not only do they accommodate a wider array of learning styles, but they also encourage more attentive reading and study. And if there’s anything in short supply among students today, it’s attentiveness.
In a study last year at the University of Washington, a group of graduate students were given Kindles, and their use of the devices was monitored through diary entries and interviews. By the end of the school year, nearly two-thirds of the students had abandoned the Kindle or were using it only infrequently. Of those who continued to use the e-reader regularly, many had “switched to a different and usually less desirable reading technique,” researchers said.
In another recent study, 500 undergraduates at the University of California were asked to compare printed books with e-books. Most of the students said they still preferred reading from pages rather than from screens. According to a report on the study, many of the students “commented on the difficulty they have learning, retaining and concentrating” when looking at a computer screen. In a typical complaint, one of the students said, “E-books divide my attention.”
One of the key themes emerging from the studies, as well as from earlier research into reading behavior, is that people read in a variety of ways. Sometimes they immerse themselves in a book, reading without interruption. Sometimes they skim pages to get a quick sense of the story or argument. Sometimes they search for a particular passage. Sometimes they skip back and forth between two or more sections of a text, making comparisons. And sometimes they take notes or highlight passages as they read.
Because we’ve come to take printed books for granted, we tend to overlook their enormous flexibility as reading instruments. It’s easy to flip through the pages of a physical book, forward and backward. It’s easy to jump quickly between widely separated sections, marking your place with your thumb or a stray bit of paper. You can write anywhere and in any form on any page of a book. You can keep many different books open simultaneously, dipping in and out of them to gather related information. And when you just want to read, the tranquility of a printed page provides a natural shield against distraction.
E-books are much more rigid. Refreshing text on a screen is a far different, and far less flexible, process than flip-ping through pages. By necessity, a screen-based, software-powered reading device imposes navigational conventions on the user, allowing certain kinds of reading but preventing or hindering others. All sorts of modes of navigation and reading that are easy with printed boo ks become more difficult with electronic books — and even a small degree of added difficulty will quickly frustrate a reader. Whereas a printed book adapts readily to whoever is holding it, an e-book requires the reader to adapt to it.
People also tend to be more easily distracted when reading from screens. There’s always the temptation to click on a link, check email, monitor Facebook activity or play a quick game of Angry Birds. Even dedicated e-readers like the Kindle are incorporating more bells and whistles that have the effect of drawing a reader’s attention away from the words.
The University of Washington researchers pointed out that, in addition to supporting attentive reading and flexible navigation, a printed book provides many subtle cues about a book’s structure and contents. We make a “cognitive map” of a physical book as we read it: “When we read, we unconsciously note the physical location of information within a text and its spatial relationship to our location in the text as a whole.” These mental maps help students “retain and recall textual information more effectively.”
E-readers sacrifice many of these navigational cues, and that’s another reason why so many students end up frustrated with the devices.
When students “have no cognitive maps on which to rely,” the researchers wrote, “the process of locating information takes longer, they have less mental energy for other tasks, and their ability to maintain their desired levels of productivity suffers.” It’s certainly possible to provide on-screen tools, such as scroll bars, that can aid in the creation of cognitive maps for e-books, but it’s unlikely that a digital book will ever provide the rich and intuitive set of tactile cues that a printed book offers.
None of this is to say that e-readers won’t come to play an important role in education. Students already do a great deal of reading and research on computer screens, after all, and there are many things that digital documents can do that printed pages can’t. What the research does tell us is that it’s rash to assume that e-textbooks are a perfect substitute for printed textbooks. The printed page continues to be a remarkably powerful reading tool, and it seems to be particularly well suited to the needs of students.
At a conference last year in Austin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry argued that printed textbooks should be abolished in favor of e-books. “I don’t see any reason in the world why we need to have textbooks in Texas in the next four years,” he said. Many school administrators and government officials make similar assumptions, with little or no evidence to back them up. If they went out and looked at how students actually read, study and learn, they’d see that paper books and electronic books are different tools and that the printed page continues to have many advantages over the screen.
New technologies are seductive, but we should always think twice before rushing to replace old tools with new ones.
Nicholas Carr is the author, most recently, of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” This essay originally appeared in The Dallas Morning News.