Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Reading Paper vs Reading Screens

As our high school has transitioned into becoming a high school 1:1 with mobile computing, teachers have had discussions of the impacts of technology right at the fingertips of high school students. Discussions sometimes hinge on whether or not students should utilize online text; and the differences between reading online and reading offline.

There is research trickling out that supports teachers' instincts to question the difference between reading online and reading offline. First, to define the difference. There are some tasks that take offline reading, say reading a novel, and put them on a device in text format. Researchers are suggesting that there isn't much difference in the reading skills needed to read a novel on paper and read a novel on a device. In fact, often times, applications have built-in dictionary and highlighting options that could enhance the reading of novels. Putting a textbook online doesn't change the skills needed to actually read that textbook.

However, our approach to materials on screens and to materials on paper can differ greatly. According to Dr. Donald Leu, a University of Connecticut - Storrs researcher, there is an overlap in the skills needed to read materials online or offline. Skills such as sounding out words, developing vocabulary and building background knowledge are important to both types of reading.

Where reading online becomes a different exercise than reading offline is when students (or adults) are using the internet to find information. Our approach to reading becomes different on the internet. We are skimming, scanning, looking at a large number of sources to find answers. If students begin to take this same approach to reading a textbook on a laptop, they are no longer gaining a deep understanding of the text. Placing informational text (such as a textbook) that contains the answers, conclusions and outcomes the teacher expects students to gain in front of them requires completely different skills than seeking desired information from a myriad of sources.

Dr. Leu explained that "online reading almost always involves trying to solve a question or problem you've got" and for teachers this means teaching the "reading skill of evaluating the reliability of a web source..., effective email communication or how to synthesize information from multiple sources to draw a conclusion." In a textbook, students are looking for an answer that is already there and has been deemed reliable; on the internet, they are searching for an answer and need to ensure it is from a reliable source.

There seem to be two things going on here: our psychological approach to screens versus paper, and the skills needed to filter online information for reliability. No matter your opinion or nostalgia for feeling and smelling the pages of a paperback novel in your hand or cracking open a new textbook your first week of college, the truth is that both types of reading - online and offline - are important skills for students to know. Students can search for answers with Google at home in their bedrooms much more quickly than consulting Encyclopedia Britannica, but are we setting them up to become fountains of mis-information if we don't ask them to evaluate the millions of results rendered from their query? What can we do to help students become purveyors of web research?

Quotes based on transcripted interview from Education Week, "Growth of Online Reading Fuels New Achievement Gap, Researchers Say."  Sep 2013

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