Thursday, July 31, 2014

Screen vs. Print, a collision of worlds, not words (Part I)

As I hinted at in the previous post, a recent trend in education is bringing digital technology into the classroom, whether elementary school, high school, or college.  Laptops, computer apps, and now iPads are finding places in contemporary education.  But school time, like all our time on earth, is finite, so something must give.  And what gives is the book.  Yes, laptops and computer apps are replacing books in both education and home life.  But as screens replace print in the classroom, has student learning improved at all?  The answer may surprise you.

In fact, the science is in on this issue.  Empirical studies on laptops and computer apps in the classroom show that student learning has surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly for many teachers) worsened for the most part.  One major peer reviewed study reports:

Students admit to spending considerable time during lectures using their laptops for things other than taking notes. More importantly, the use of laptops was negatively related to several measures of learning. The pattern of the correlations suggests that laptop use interfered with students’ abilities to pay attention to and understand the lecture material, which in turn resulted in lower test scores  (Fried, 2006).  

In other words, laptop use in the classroom consistently correlates with student distraction and falling grades.

But wait a second!  Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, something we all learn in basic science.  However, related studies suggest that there is a causal path from laptop use to deteriorating academic skills, especially in literacy.  To understand this causation, consider a larger topic: the experience of using screens vs. the experience of using print.

When it comes to screen vs. print media, we can name at least three major differences that affect learning (and human cognition in general).

Light:  When students read screens, the light comes through the screen, directly at the retina, which will eventually tire the eyes, an effect known as digital eye strain.  Contrast that visual experience to looking at a book.  When students read a book, the light is reflected off the page, which does not shine direct light into the eyes.  This is why books better facilitate visual attention and focus, essential ingredients for working memory and learning.

Haptics:  Think about the haptic experience of using a book.  Reading a book is a sensorimotor experience, involving touching and flipping pages, using hand-eye coordination, feeling the weight of the codex, and sensing whether it is big or small, thick or thin, etc.  Screens imperfectly replicate, or sometimes fail to replicate, these haptic experiences.  Moreover, a lot of people are unaware that these haptic experiences give our brains sensory feedback, which affects learning and cognition.  (This is why cognition is sometimes understood as embodied cognition, meaning that mental life is strongly shaped by bodily experience.)

Distractions:  Finally (and this point should be obvious to parents and teachers), consider the fact that books don’t have the same kind of built-in distractions that screen media like laptops and iPads have (e.g., games, email, etc.).


Scientific American ran at a terrific article on this research not too long ago (November 2013), which they summarized with the following graphic.

"Why the Brain Prefers Paper" from Scientific American 

So what can we conclude from all this data, especially when it comes to digitizing the classroom with laptops and iPads in the classroom?  Find out in the next post on Screen vs. Print (Part II) . . .


1 comment:

  1. With the exception of the light-emission-vs-reflection question, the things you and SciAm highlight as material differences between books and computerized text seem keyed to reader expectations or experiences. They emphasize limitations rather than opportunities in computerized text. For example, electronic texts provide much greater ease of finding words or phrases (not just while viewing the text--on my computer, when I search in a folder of files, it finds files with matching terms inside them). The notes I make on them are indexed, so that I can quickly see all the highlighted passages and my comments, etc.

    So, I wonder if we are in a transitional period, one where folks trained with both forms of media feel the limitations and opportunities of each rather acutely. Nevertheless, because paper is the incumbent, as humans we struggle with the transition to the new medium, and we are less efficient with it now than we may be in the future.

    Do you get the sense that I hate books? I do. If I never had to buy another paper book, I'd be delighted. I want my library on my computer, along with all my comments and notes about what I'm reading.

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