"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Digital Versus Print

Reading on a computer screen provides quite a number of advantages over reading on paper. The "search" or "find text" capability is really awesome. Using the right keyword, one can easily jump to the relevant section without browsing through so many pages. Not all books in print have indices and an index is usually a fixed set of keywords in print. It is not a matter of choice from the reader. With "copy and paste", it is also easy to take down notes. The flip side, however, is not taking one's memory into task anymore. It seems no longer important to remember something when that piece of information is so easy to retrieve.

Recently, I came across an article in Nautilus, "Paper versus Pixel":

First, I thought the above image was a bit ironic, having the child hold the reading material in print, while the adult is reading on screen. Reading digital versus print materials are indeed two different experiences. One, however, cannot avoid the word versus. It means comparison. The author, Nicholas Carr, cites a scientific study that measured and compared reading comprehension between those who read print and those who read on screen. Carr highlights this study with the following inference:
"What we’re learning now is that reading is a bodily activity. We take in information the way we experience the world—as much with our sense of touch as with our sense of sight."
Published studies that compare between on-screen and print reading seem all over the place. One reason is that most of these studies are not well designed. For instance, in evaluating reading comprehension, several factors other than medium come into play. It is therefore necessary to perform these studies with a multiple regression analysis, taking into account the various conditions that can influence reading comprehension. The study that Carr specifically cites is from the International Journal of Educational Research:

The results of the above study are summarized in the following tables:

First, the study is quite recent. The participants are 15-16 year old 10th grade students in Norway. And as the authors describe, the participants are middle-class Caucasian, and hence homogeneous with respect to socio-economic status and ethnicity. The pretests as illustrated in Table 1 show that, on average, there is indeed no difference between the set of students who would read print and those who would read on-screen. Table 2 reports the results of a multiple regression analysis of the reading comprehension scores after the experiment. As expected, both word reading ability and vocabulary are strong predictors of good performance in the reading comprehension exam. Gender is not. However, the medium, whether it is digital or print, makes a difference. The coefficient is negative, which means that those who read on-screen scored lower in reading comprehension. Thus, the authors of the above study arrived at the following conclusion:

The results of this study indicate that reading linear narrative and expository texts on a computer screen leads to poorer reading comprehension than reading the same texts on paper. These results have several pedagogical implications. Firstly, we should not assume that changing the presentation format for even short texts used in reading assessments will not have a significant impact on reading performance. If texts are longer than a page, scrolling and the lack of spatiotemporal markers of the digital texts to aid memory and reading comprehension might impede reading performance. Furthermore, our results suggest that implementing both reading assessment tasks (i.e., text reading and response tasks) in the same medium – the computer – leads to additional cognitive costs. Hence, the ongoing digitization of response format in the Norwegian educational assessment system warrants extra consideration of important but hitherto largely neglected factors potentially influencing assessment outcomes, such as challenges pertaining to multitasking in a digital environment.

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