Online platforms offer tools helping students to learn more effectively in classrooms and lecture halls across the world. However, most commentators agree that both digital and print mediums have important roles to play in the classroom and at home. What are their respective merits?
Digital texts may be cheaper to produce, which means many more people may benefit from their availability. “In developing countries, e-books distributed via smartphones can provide access to educational texts that would otherwise be impossible,” explains Natalia Kucirkova, professor of early childhood education and development at the University of Stavanger, Norway.
Kucirkova adds that digital texts also offer a unique means of assisting those with special needs or learning difficulties – readers can easily adjust font size and listen to explanatory voiceovers. “Children who tend to dislike reading may also prefer digital texts,” she adds.
But that’s not the whole story. Lauren Singer Trakhman, assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland, explains that reading digitally places special demands on the brain. “Reading a digital text takes up more of the brain’s working memory because of scrolling and viewing a backlit screen,” she says. “There’s also evidence that students may be more inclined to skim-read when reading in digital formats.”
Print has a role to play in education
Trakhman’s research with undergraduates has shown that readers comprehend more when they read a print text. They also engage in “deeper processing” of the book and regularly go back to re-read important sentences.
“When children are reading, print may make them more inclined to at a picture at the right time in a picture book, because it’s easier to orientate themselves in a print text,” Trakhman adds.
In the classroom, print may just have the edge when it comes to topics that require in-depth analysis.
In any case, digital readers may also benefit from being trained to read mindfully, says Trakhman. Either way: “Reading is great – no matter what the medium.”
In the US, Naomi Susan Baron, professor of linguistics at the Department of World Languages and Cultures at the American University, says that despite the proliferation of digital technology, sales of print texts remain reassuringly robust.
“Print has been available in the West since the 1450s,” Baron says. “It’s such a handy medium – so easy to use, portable and durable. We’ve seen technological media come and go – think of microfilm and the floppy disk. But I think print texts will still be finding favour for many years to come.”
Text: Ben Hargreaves
Photography: Susie Hadeed