After watching a TED talk on “A next-generation digital book” I was both amazed at the possibilities digital tools offer for enhancing learning and concerned about the impact interactive digital texts have on students’ attention spans and comprehension. The featured book, Our Choice by Al Gore, contains over an hour of documentary footage, interactive maps and charts, and responsive animations that illustrate various concepts (TED, 2011). Although this book is geared towards an adult audience, it is easy to see how these features could be used to supplement a science, history, or math e-book in the classroom. Students could watch videos that demonstrate the content they are reading about and even practice applying the new information without leaving the interface.
Despite these benefits, I worry about students’ ability to gain a deep understanding of texts when their attention is constantly being drawn away by features like interactive images and hyperlinks to external sources. Although these features may assist struggling readers in understanding the content, they might also prevent them from engaging in the text in a sustained and meaningful way.
Because digital texts are fairly new, there are not many studies yet that examine how the digital reading experience impacts students’ understanding and performance long-term. Despite this lack of data, there are many writers, teachers, and researchers who are currently exploring this issue, and beginning to discover how print and digital reading experiences differ, and the benefits and drawbacks of both. A recent article in the New Yorker, “Being a Better Online Reader” by Maria Konnikova, examines this issue, and calls for researchers and teachers to explore students’ experiences with digital texts in order to develop strategies that will help students use them more effectively.
Konnikova highlights a study done by Anne Mangen, which compared the retention of a story when read in print versus a digital format. She found that “When readers were asked to place a series of events from the story in chronological order…those who had read the story in print fared significantly better, making fewer mistakes and recreating an over-all more accurate version of the story” (Konnikova, 2014, para. 6). A part of this retention issue may be that reading a digital text offers more opportunities for distraction and requires students to “exercise much greater self-control than a physical book” (Konnikova, 2014, para. 8). Although features that provide definitions for words or more background information within digital texts may help scaffold students’ learning, they also pull students away from the text itself and make “deep-reading” more difficult. If I have the opportunity to select digital texts in the future, I think it will be important to experiment with the features to see if they add to the content, or simply serve as an entertaining distraction.
Julie Corio, a professor at the University of Rhode Island, makes a similar argument about features sidetracking readers, saying that “each time you click a link, you’re constructing your own text” (As quoted in Konnikova, 2014, para. 10). Because of this ability to construct your experience in a digital text, it is a different process than reading a print book, and requires teachers and librarians to introduce students to new comprehension strategies. Konnikova argues that “The digital deficit…isn’t a result of the medium as such but rather of a failure of self-knowledge and self-control” (2014, para. 10). This new reading process makes teaching students self-regulation skills and how to navigate a digital text while maintaining continuity crucial. While some readers may be able to successfully use features to solidify their learning, others may need more help staying focused on the task at hand. This offers an opportunity for educators to help students reflect on their personal learning process, and discover which features enhance their understanding and which ones they should avoid.
Although there are studies that have shown that digital texts can distract from learning, there others that offer a more hopeful picture. One study featured in the article found that an interactive annotation feature in a digital text improved fifth graders’ comprehension of the story (Konnikova, 2014, para. 14). The tools and features offered by digital texts, when used purposefully, can help further students’ understanding and engagement. With digital texts becoming more ubiquitous in students’ lives both in and out of the classroom, librarians and teachers can support students by giving them strategies for deep-reading within these interfaces. Instead of ignoring the differences between print and digital reading, we can use them to help students become more digitally literate and more self-reflective as they navigate reading in multiple formats.
Konnikova, M. (2014, July 16). Being a Better Online Reader. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader
TED. (2011). A Next-Generation Digital Book. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/mike_matas?language=en