The New Cognitive Ecology of Reading: What Does it Mean for Online Teaching and Course Design

Concurrent Session 2
Streamed Session

Watch This Session

Brief Abstract

Every online or hybrid course represents a perspective on reading. Recognition of recent accounts of its cognitive dimensions, to how our minds work in reading and what everyday online behavior means in the lives of readers, can direct postsecondary educational professionals to timely questions of course design and teaching.  


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

Extended Abstract

This “Present and Reflect” session falls within the conference track on “Teaching and Learning Practice.”  

The 30 minute opening section is based on the assumption that every online or hybrid course, to the degree that it includes online text, represents a perspective on reading in the digital age. Recognition of recent accounts of its cognitive dimensions, to how our minds work in reading and what everyday online behavior means in the lives of readers, can direct postsecondary educational professionals to timely questions of course design and teaching.  

It is now twenty years since the phrase “continuous partial attention” entered American discourse to name the cognitive conditions becoming apparent in digital experience. Indeed, distracted reading is its most common form, from adolescent readers to university faculty, the latter struggling with information overload if not with “fear of missing out” (FOMO) on what is communicated via social media. This presentation focuses on adult professional readers working in online course design and teaching. Their experience of reading and understanding of its dynamics can be observed in the presentation of text on instructional screens, in the ratio of print and screen reading in any course, and in student assignments and assessments, including expectations of students as readers of peer writing.  

The environment for reading features ubiquitous screens and, surprisingly, the durability of print. That is precisely the framework cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf adopts in her celebrated 2018 book: Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World. Wolf features the neuroscience of reading, presented in urgent terms: “The quality of our reading is not only an index of the quality of our thought, it is our best-known path to developing whole new pathways in the cerebral evolution of our species.” The stakes are high, reflecting the “quickening changes that now characterize [reading’s] current evolving iterations.” 

Wolf’s goal is to identify a way to understand how we read in the digital age that can serve as a foundation for preparing succeeding generations for fruitful and satisfying reading. She tells her own story as a reader, the inspiration for introducing questions of reading in this session format with what it asks of participants in thinking about their experience as readers.         

For Wolf, timing is everything.  “Unlike in the past, we possess both the science and the technology to identify potential changes in how we read—and thus how we think—before such changes are fully entrenched in the population and accepted without comprehension of the consequences.”  And she offers this guidance in online course design: “The building [of our knowledge of the practices of reading] can provide the theoretical basis for changing technology to redress its own weaknesses, whether in more refined digital modes of reading or the creation of alternative. . . . hybrid approaches to it.” Accordingly, the presentation turns to the “new cognitive ecologies” to guide fresh attention to reading in online course design and teaching.

Print and screens can now be represented in partnerships in emerging and future reading styles. We have what is prompted by screens--toward what is brief and quickly accomplished often while engaged in other media--and what print offers, in long-form texts, and in-depth cognitive activity. The two might co-exist but without attention to their relative merits. If we are neutral about the kinds of reading the two formats promote will we set in motion normalization of screen reading for all purposes? True enough, readers might always be able to choose--the right medium for the task as the saying goes--but will the sheer force of the screen, and what it means for student readers gradually degrade (if that is not too strong a term) reading habits more generally. Over time will online habits make of print a specialized or even antiquarian habit--like using fountain pens?

We often hear now that teachers report that students--many, of course, tethered to their smart phones when not in class (and sometimes when they are)--resist reading demanding essays and whole books. Some observers of higher education propose that we "start where the students are." This session addresses the desirability of starting where the teachers and course designers are in their habits of reading and views about its nature in the digital age. Should we be thinking about what we can do, while capitalizing on the affordances of screens, to retain the uses of long-form and deep reading, or what appears to be possible only in print?  

Wolf has allies in her quest for a fresh view of reading. According to theorist Robert Clowes (“Screen Reading and the Creation of New Digital Ecologies,” AI and Society, [2018]) “Reading exists in a tool-rich ecology. Our tools do not simply impact upon our minds, but are themselves part of a constantly evolving cognitive ecology, shaping and reshaping human cognitive abilities.  It is possible that this new ecology might diminish certain of our capabilities, but we need to hold open the possibility that it can also create new cognitive possibilities."

Right now, as Wolf and Clowes explain, we can't be certain that reading online doesn't have unwelcome cognitive effects. But Clowes is an optimist and he stands with Wolf and others in urging recognition of the expansion of reading as part of a "new cognitive ecology" (or what others are calling "transliteracy" or "bi-literacy").
Clowes focuses on the brain's "plasticity" and takes the problem into theory. Thus: "What the science of the reading brain has helped reveal, is how human neural hardware and technology are poised in a dynamic and mutually transformative relationship." There will be change but print is seen as co-existing with screens: "This is a process of both conservation and innovation." Presumably, expert readers at work in course design and teaching will be particularly self-conscious about how the two interact.  

The 30 minute introduction will conclude with attention to strategies that might be adopted to reflect the “new cognitive ecology of reading” in course design and teaching. Such strategies can form part of the backdrop for the Q and A part of session, with what participants discover about themselves as readers in the “reflective” segment. The strategies might include: a) attention to questions of reading in the digital age in the syllabus; b) syllabus and assignment design that reflects the relations of screen and print reading; and c) course evaluation that invite comments by students on the encounter between their reading styles and preferences and how reading was represented in the course.   

The second and third parts of the session will enlist participants in considering what the new ecology of reading means for course design, teaching, and learning. The five minute reflective exercise will invite participants to think about themselves as readers based on the summary of the “new cognitive ecology of reading” presented in the first part of the session and with a short series of questions (distributed as a handout) based on those Wolf used in her research:
● Has the ubiquity of screen reading influenced your reading of print?
● Are you more easily distracted when reading online than when you are reading print? 
● Does reading on a screen reduce your patience with long form texts?
● Do you find e-books to be equivalent to print books for gaining understanding from a text?
● Do you often print digital texts to enable more understanding?  

Finally, the session design means that the third part, 10 minutes of Q and A, can feature what the personal experience of reading, against the theoretical backdrop, means for thinking about the best conditions for online course design, teaching, and learning.