Students at Screens and the Future of Reading: What Do We Know? What Should We Do?

Concurrent Session 10

Brief Abstract

According to one academic pundit “print is where words go to die.” All online students are screen readers and have a stake in today’s debate about the nature and future of reading.  How can instructors and IT professionals reflect in their work the differences between print and screens for learning?



Fifteen years of experience in teaching online courses in graduate programs, including an annual one on "Education in the Digital Age"

Extended Abstract

All online students are screen readers and have a stake in today’s debate about the nature and future of reading.  Daniel Willingham’s The Reading Mind (2017) features the cognitive process.  And research in the past decade has shown that the medium matters. Screen reading, with its speed, searching, and connectivity, presents compelling educational opportunities but also educational dilemmas. What do traditional expectations for reading, particularly those we associate with academic work, mean for understanding the differences between screens and print?  How does technological innovation (e.g., mobile devices and Open Educational Resources e-textbooks) influence course design and online teaching? Are there reasons to question the force of generational change, as in claims about the influence of technology on 21st century students, including what it means for reading?  What does new research showing that college students prefer print to screens for academic work suggest for online teaching and learning?   
        For some scholars there is no question of the triumph of screens. One academic pundit, an advocate of unlimited digital activity for learning, says “print is where words go to die.” But recent studies show that screens have hardly replaced print, particularly in higher education. There are important questions of teaching and learning at the border of old and new media. Still, the vanguard in online education (e.g., the  New Media Foundation and EDUCAUSE) rarely recognize interaction between the two, and the engagement and learning reflected in how students organize their experiences as readers.     
        The presentation is in three parts, each aimed at prompting interaction with participants in the session about their work as teachers, course designers, and online program leaders and managers—and as readers themselves. The first part features competing arguments made for screen-based “New Media Literacies” and for the cognitive advantages of print.  Who would deny that we want students able to use new digital tools with ease and satisfaction?  Malcolm Brown of EDUCAUSE says “We have entered into a period of both dislocation, when the known and familiar begin to disappear, and relocation, when we invent new methods, techniques, and configurations.”
        Is there anything more “known and familiar” in education at all levels than paper and print?  But, where there is the prospect of moderating our commitment to traditional reading, with support for what one theorist calls “hyperreading” in recognition of our increasingly screen-based habits, what can be made of the view of Cathy Davidson (CUNY’s influential curriculum reformer) about the fate of print? “Once we no longer think about the loss,” she says, “the consequences stop seeming dire.” Predictably enough, as the presentation will show, advocates for “new media literacy,” with its attention to the visual rather than text and its distribution of literacy across a host of digital activities (like gaming), have urged educators to make the most of screens, with print in a subordinate role if not consigned to the analog past.           
        Technology historian Nicholas Carr offers a contrary view. He is best known for his widely cited Atlantic article of 2008: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and then his popular book on the impact of technology, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (2010). Carr identifies new relations between technology and cognition: “When we go online we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning.” His worry isn’t categorical. But he is firm about what we face in the devices we favor: “It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards.”  Others uneasy about technology see the impact of multi-tasking and social media (with other digital distractions) on reading, or the difficulty for “always on” young people to maintain attention to a text.    
        Against the backdrop of the educational and cultural debate about reading, the presentation  turns in its second part to an account of recent research (represented in a handout also posted at the conference website) about how students do their academic reading. It features a review of recent work reporting on how undergraduates manage the screen/print divide and on what they prefer. The presentation cites the results of studies of undergraduates at UCLA and CUNY who favored, by a considerable margin, print to screens for their course-based reading. One student spoke for most when he said “If the reading is complex, I prefer to read it in print.” The UCLA study found that students prefer to read print texts “which introduce new knowledge or complex material because they feel they need to employ deep learning strategies.” At CUNY, students acknowledged the utility of search and links in online texts but also, as is widely observed, reported that electronic reading means many distractions. And preferring print signified something deeply felt if hard to articulate about the operations of the reading brain. As one student said: “I don’t know how to really put it, but print is how writing is supposed to be.” 
       Qualitative studies of this kind cannot, of course, demonstrate conclusively for all students the advantages of print claimed by those who prefer it. But they show that in online teaching and learning, where reading is dominated by screens, there are reasons to be open minded about the consequences of assuming that we should be readying ourselves for the replacement of an old medium by a new one. And Naomi Baron’s international survey research-based studies of college students also report a decisive majority favoring print over screens (in Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World [2015]). Students specify how print aids in attention, understanding, and memory.  It is a resource for “deep learning” in ways that cannot be matched by reading on screens.   
       The presentation’s third part is devoted to the question “What Should We Do?” to recognize the situation of online students as readers and to promote high levels of engagement and learning. The presentation reflects the premise that early as we are in understanding the relations of print and screens the best educational strategy is to understand the differences. And we can make attention to the debate about them part of how we design and teach online courses in the context of what we will encounter in the years ahead. Thus, the 2015 study from the Pew Research Center on teens and social media found that a quarter of 12-17 year olds are online “almost constantly.” With multi-tasking and digital distractions they are subject to what Pew calls a “frenzy of access” in contrast to what Carr (with others) claims as the effect of print: “The mind of the experienced book reader is a calm mind, not a buzzing one.” 
       The last part of the presentation asks “What roles are there for instructors and course designers in guiding students in the conditions of their reading?” and features a professional suggestion and a pedagogical one. The first would have teachers and course designers (with other IT professionals) identify with the efforts to organize new understandings of reading in our time. These include the campaign (primarily among college and university libraries) to name “standards” for “information literacy” in higher education. And there is the case for “transliteracies,” or new theories of reading that incorporate the differences signified by the screens vs. print divide but guide students toward each’s distinctive advantages. The goal in these and allied projects is to recognize that the debate about their relative merits of print and screens is far from settled, with claims and counterclaims needing patient empirical study over time, with reflection on our experience.  
      But the presentation also features a pedagogical opportunity, or presenting the question of screens vs. print to students themselves, urging recognition of the best uses of each in the context of the history and uses of educational technology. Doing so (perhaps with a selection from resources identified in another handout, also posted at the conference website), would be a timely way to engage students in “technology education” as Neil Postman named it (in The End of Education [1995]). Such an approach encourages students to participate—in interactions with instructors and one another—in an educational debate with consequences for how they engage in learning in the curriculum and beyond.
       In effect, the presentation, with its opportunities for discussion among participants, represents an appeal for the incorporation into online courses in any subject of resources prompting students to contemplate how they see themselves as readers, with their expectations of screens and of print.  Willingham is not yet ready to find screens a permanent obstacle to serious reading.  But Baron advises: “Think through whether your reading patterns expand or restrict the value you derive from the experience, and keep your options open.”