Digital Readers Might Lack Comprehension Benefits

With society moving more and more into the digital era, the classroom is evolving, too. Project Tomorrow recently released a study showing that almost one in three students now uses a digital device provided by the school.

E-readers are definitely becoming more popular. According to Julian Baggini of The Financial Times, as recently as 2010, hardly anyone owned an e-reader. Now, almost one-half of Americans do. Many college students prefer the method, citing its affordability, ease carrying, and ability to personalize.

But is this digital reading promoting comprehension and active learning?

Digital media senior Alberto Ceja's research project suggests it is not. He gave an article to 10 students in paper form, and 10 students in a digital format. After reading the article, the students were all given the same quiz with questions pertaining to the article. Students who read the paper version scored an average of 77%, while digital readers scored around 60%.

One study out of Westchester University of Pennsylvania suggests that comprehension is higher when using print reading. While students were more likely to want to read with an e-reader, they were simply skimming for important information, rather than doing deep reading, writes Rama Yousef for The Daily Cougar.

Digital media professor Jerry Waite believes there is still much to be seen on this topic, and perhaps age has something to do it. He suggests that e-readers are still new, and we will have to wait to see how they effect those who grow up with them and whose use of them comes second-nature.

"When children have more of a use of these things as they are young, they will come to find them much more conducive to learning," Waite said.

While e-book versions of textbooks for Waite's class are available, he never sees students using them.

"I have never seen one student using the iPad version; they all buy the book," Waite said. "Part of that is because they weren't raised with the iPad."

Sara Margolin of the State University of New York has also suggested that many of the problems surrounding comprehension of digital materials may be from unfamiliarity with the format.

"Having a device that requires a lot of attention to simply operate could essentially steal working memory resources," says Margolin.

In order to help students comprehend better through digital media, ed tech products are beginning to be created, allowing students to use print methods of comprehension (writing notes and highlighting important text) on a digital format. Curriculet is one such website.

The program allows teachers to create lessons based around e-books, adding information in video or text form where they see the need to promote better understanding of the material. Students are even capable of adding their own notations as they read.

The program has raised concerns that these features will interrupt a students' ability to read and comprehend.

"Reading flow should only be interrupted if the interruption is meaningful and relevant," Curriculet CEO Jason Singer said.

It is clear that more research is needed, over the coming decades, to tell us which format is truly better. Until then, according to Tufts University cognitive scientist Maryanne Wolf, people need a "bi-lateral" brain.

"We should be simultaneously reading to children from books, giving them print, helping them to learn this slower mode and at the same time steadily increasing their immersion into the technological, digital age. It's both," Wolf said.

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