Digital is popular, but is it less effective than paper?

With Thanks: Dr Eugene Brink – Solidariteit Wereld

Published: 22 July 2019


The era of ubiquitous digital texts and technology and the immense and accelerating rate at which they are displacing printed publications has well and truly arrived and is here to stay.

It seems as if this march cannot be halted and tablets are increasingly being rolled out in classrooms around the world. South Africa is no exception. Technology and digital information are easily accessible, compact and popular with policymakers and the public alike.

And yet, Redham House’s primary and high school classes in Sydney, Australia, have all switched back to printed books.

The reasons are varied and compelling. Most important, the consistent feedback from students is that they prefer print to digital. It was found that the hard copies improve comprehension and offer less distraction. Teachers also found that the iPads didn’t even contribute to the learners’ technology skills, The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

“The ease of navigation through the textbook was easier with the hard copy. I believe they learn better the more faculties they use, the more senses they use in research and reading and making notes,” says principal Dave Pitcairn.

“[Students] could have messages popping up and all sorts of other alerts. Also, kids being kids, they could jump between screens quite easily, so would look awfully busy and not be busy at all.”

There is no doubt that digital reading is well liked and widely used as a result. But as this case shows, popularity isn’t the only, or even the most, essential consideration when learning is concerned. Pitcairn and his school aren’t the only ones who believe paper trumps screens when it comes to learning.

Lauren Singer and Patricia Alexander from the University of Maryland wrote in their review from research done since 1992 that students’ perception and real experience with both mediums are quite paradoxical. Students prefer digital texts and think they perform better when perusing them. “But their actual performance tended to suffer,” they wrote.

“We found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension.”

There were further takeaways from their three studies exploring university students’ ability to comprehend information digitally and on paper:

Reading was significantly faster online than in print.
Students judged their comprehension as better online than in print.
Paradoxically, overall comprehension was better for print versus digital reading.
The medium didn’t matter for general questions (such as understanding the main idea of the text).
But when it came to specific questions, comprehension was significantly better when participants read printed texts.
Naomi Baron also compared reading in these respective formats in a study and found that the participants lauded reading digitally for reasons such as being able to access varied content easily, but her findings also had some positive news for print texts and books. “In this study, 86% preferred reading longer texts in print and 78% when reading for pleasure, with 92% saying it was easiest to concentrate when reading print. 85% of the US students were more likely to multitask in an online environment and only 26% when reading print,” says Lisa Allcott, a facilitator in the National Capability Services team with Services to Schools on the website of the National Library of New Zealand.

She points to another 2011 study by psychologists Rakefet Ackerman and Morris Goldsmith in which they found that, when faced with a choice, students spent less time reading digitally and had lower comprehension scores when reading on screens.

E-textbooks and digital texts are not about to disappear – on the contrary. Their popularity, evolution and omnipresence will ensure this. But judging by the resurgence of printed-book sales, Redham’s decision and even Joe Public’s own preferences, printed books, magazines and learning material won’t simply vanish.

March 19, 2020

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