Thursday, July 31, 2014

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

Visualization of routes through the Internet, from Wikipedia

Printer in 1568-ce, from Wikipedia

In the intro post to this blog, I used Marshall McLuhan’s term, ‘the Gutenberg Galaxy,’ (also the name of, in my opinion, his best book) as a metaphor for the world of print media, such as newspapers, magazines, and books.  We can contrast this world with ‘the Digital Universe,’ or the world of screen media, such as the laptops and iPads we’ve been discussing here.

In education, as we've seen in the previous post, there are arguably good reasons not to totally replace the print technology of the Gutenberg Galaxy with the screen technology of the Digital Universe—analogous arguments could be made for workplace training or similar learning environments.  

Print media (or ‘light-on’ media, as McLuhan called it) are good for helping students slowly focus and reflect on words that are contained and fixed on a page.  

Screen media (or ‘light-through’ media, to evoke one more McLuhanism) are more like windows, better for opening up a wideralbeit less focusedview and allowing students to scan and multitask without taxing too much reflective thought.


As a general rule (although we'll go over some interesting exceptions in later posts), books are often better for teaching reading and most literacy skillsif we go with the National Center for Education Statistics’ definition of literacy (not including digital literacy, which is another topic for later).  Laptops and iPads are better for teaching game-like simulations that exercise spatial and visual skills.  For example, if you want to learn about the US Federalist Papers or the Constitution, you’re probably better off reading books or print documents.  But if you need to learn how to fly a plane, drive a car, or play the rules of a sport, a simulation video game will work way better than any manual.

And here lies the moral of the story, which we can put in a quasi-syllogistic form:

  • Different media (or information-processing technologies) help us with different kinds of mental activities (or information-processing tasks).
  • There are many different kinds of information-processing tasks that our minds do every day (e.g., reading comprehension skills that require long-term memory and focus differ from navigational skills that require short-term memory and multitasking).
  • Ergo, what kind of information-processing task I wish to accomplish may be made easier or harder by the kind of information-processing technology I chose to assist me.

So how does this logic apply to print vs. screen media?

Again, Print media seems to be more conducive to relatively gradual, linear, reflective thought that requires long-term memory and focus.  (I recommend Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows for anyone interested in the scientific details; Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf is an excellent read too.)

Screen media seems to help us more by rapidly processing tidbits of information in nonlinear fashions that facilitate short-term memory and multitasking (which is why laptops have not had their intended effects in education, particularly in literacy, although they should be useful for many other tasks, such as spatial orientation, navigation, or visualization).

So do the worlds of the Gutenberg Galaxy and the Digital Universe collide?  Well, of course!  But (as I hope I’ve made clear by now) we would do better to reframe the whole topic with a sharper question so as not to be recalcitrant.  Here’s a better question:

What information processing task (i.e., mental activity) are you trying to accomplish, and what information-processing technology (i.e., medium) is best for doing so?  In other words, what activity is my mind doing, and what choice of media would help it better?

With that much improved question in mind, let us revisit the news that St. Paul Public Schools plan to spend a few million of tax-payer money to equip every student with an iPad.  Is this a prudent or perilous plan?  Well, since the school board hasn't given us any specifics yet on how it intends to use the iPads for education, we can't be sure yet.  But we can make some recommendations . . .

It is very unlikely that iPads will help educational skills that require focus, attention, and long-term memory.  The iPad probably won’t help reading comprehension or most literacy skills.  Nevertheless, iPads, like laptops and computer apps, certainly can enhance learning when it comes to spatial and visual tasks, such as understanding maps, learning how to drive, or exercising visual acuity.

So in the next post, we'll make more explicit what each media (print vs. screen) are best suited for (and we'll hope that the school boards are listening).  Join us one more time for the conclusion of Screen vs. Print (Part III).


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