Paper Versus Electronic: Debating Comprehension

Vol. 12 No. 3


Technology has given us the ability to take our electronic textbooks on the go. As we travel from here to there, so can our studies. And, certainly textbook publishing companies and Apple continue to push the transition from paper to electronic devices for schools and universities. But, we must stop and ask how electronic reading is impacting comprehension.

There are many perspectives to this conversation. Some in favor of electronic textbooks argue its benefits rest in greener learning. Others in favor rave about the portability and lightened stress on student bodies that heavy backpacks can impose. And then there are those who say electronic reading is easier on the eyes than traditional fine-print, paper books.

Since the 1980s, these discussions have been debated by psychologists, computer engineers, and even librarians, resulting in numerous documented studies. There are hundreds, literally hundreds, of published research studies reporting the pros and cons of reading from electronic and paper resources. Before the 1990s, studies showed people read slower from a screen than they did from a paper source. However, studies conducted after 1990 conclude contradictive findings. What studies are consistently finding, however, is that people struggle to read and navigate long text efficiently on digital devices. This implies that digital devices affect reading comprehension.

In an article published by Scientific American, Ferris Jabr reports that modern screens and e-readers drain more of our mental resources while we are reading, making it a little harder to remember what we read. He also states that, whether we realize it or not, when we approach digital devices, we often do so with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one we approach paper with. And, from a tactile perspective, reading digital text eliminates our ability to fashion what we read into “a kind of physical landscape.”

“There is a physicality in reading,” says developmental psychologist and cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University. “The features of a printed book allow readers to navigate them more efficiently.”

In Jabr’s article, he continues, “An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends. Most screens, e-readers, smartphones, and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.”

Jabr’s argument, however, only seems to compare scrolling text (what scholars call a codex) to traditional printed books. It doesn’t take into account those e-Readers that allow for clearly defined pages or online PDFs, that also replicate pagination. And, there is the other side of the argument that claims electronic text allows users to search more easily for keywords and passages than flipping through pages or dog-earing important sections.

In a conflicting report by John Jones, published by dmlcentral (Digital Media + Learning: The Power of Participation), Jabr’s argument and sources are examined and countered. Jones argues that Jabr’s report doesn’t take into account all electronic resources, and the studies Jabr cites do not support his claims about the nature of paper versus screen reading for comprehension.

How do students weigh in on this debate? A study published in the fall 2012 issue of the Journal for Advancement of Marketing Education claims that, despite the advantages electronic resources propose, students still find paper texts preferable for studying. Students participating in the study stated that paper texts were superior for highlighting, adding notes, bookmarking, and, yes, even searching. They claimed they felt constrained by the requirements for a specific brand of reader, the need for special software, and mentioned most often the need for a power source. Participating students consistently said they felt they had more control over their learning experience with paper than they did with e-text.

Another study, “Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media” to be published in September 2014 in the journal College & Research Libraries, found that, although the students they tracked relied heavily on their mobile devices, they preferred paper text for academic reading. They reported they couldn’t interact with the content as they could in print format.

Where does this leave us? Probably in the same place we’ve been since 1990—in the middle of a debate with conflicting perspectives. Integrated learning, a combination of traditional practices with the inclusion of technology, is how most schools and universities are approaching the conversation.

Additional ISM articles of interest
ISM Monthly Update for Business Managers Vol. 11 No. 7 Integrated Learning Goals

Additional ISM articles of interest for Gold Consortium members
I&P Vol. 36 No. 1 The 21st Century School: Facilities
I&P Vol. 36 No. 16 The 21st Century School: Technology and Small Children

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