Thursday, May 27, 2021

Reading print is different to reading on screen

Photo by Olena Sergienko on Unsplash
I read a lot, both on paper and in digital formats, but the way I read the two formats is different. I find it hard to read lengthy texts on a screen, no matter how sharp the resolution. Maybe it's because I'm getting old and stuck in my ways, but I just can't concentrate on a digital text in the same way as a printed one. Digital texts come complete with built-in distractions (alerts from social media, e-mails, other web sites) that are always more interesting than what I'm reading and somehow I find myself programmed to distraction when I'm on a digital device. My digital reading tends to be fragmented and unfocused - skimming through articles to get the gist, checking references, following links to new content. I can also reveal that the same is true for writing. Writing online is a very messy process for me with repeated diversions to chats, e-mails, social media etc. and this post would certainly have been written much quicker on paper.

This cannot be written off as a generational issue according to an article by Naomi S. Baron in The ConversationWhy we remember more by reading – especially print – than from audio or video. Students have similar problems in reading digital texts and the article suggests that this is because we automatically adopt an entertainment mindset when approaching digital material. Research indicates that students remember more details from printed material because it demands more focused attention in a way that the digital equivalent does not. Reading a book is a spatial experience and we often remember details connected to where on the page or on which page a particular detail is mentioned. 

Interestingly, there is also evidence that many people have difficulty remembering details from audio and video material, so popular today in education in the context of the flipped classroom approach. Somehow our mind wanders when listening to or watching a recording and we all recognise the feeling of listening to news on the radio but not remembering what you have just heard. We also tend to do other things when we listen or watch (like running, making food, checking our mobile) in our futile attempts to be efficient multitaskers. Somehow, reading printed material is one activity that still demands full concentration.

The collective research shows that digital media have common features and user practices that can constrain learning. These include diminished concentration, an entertainment mindset, a propensity to multitask, lack of a fixed physical reference point, reduced use of annotation and less frequent reviewing of what has been read, heard or viewed.

Reading, listening and viewing in an educational context are skills that need to be developed. We need to become more aware of our concentration levels and our vulnerability to distraction and employ strategies to focus. This can mean taking notes or drawing a mind map. Or simply shutting down all our distractions.

Digital texts, audio and video all have educational roles, especially when providing resources not available in print. However, for maximizing learning where mental focus and reflection are called for, educators – and parents – shouldn’t assume all media are the same, even when they contain identical words.

Paper is not inherently "better" than digital but its limitations are also an advantage in terms of not offering any potential distractions. In a world of distractions the ability to focus is a vital skill to learn.

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