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Paper or Plastic:  How Computer Technology is Negatively Impacting the Learning Environment


Reading from paper is more conducive to learning than from computer screens


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, December 6, 2017


   Public schools have wholeheartedly adopted computer technology in their learning environment with the belief that technology will not only improve efficiency, but enhance learning as well.  However, recent studies over the past few years have shown that students of all age groups, as well as adults, tend to retain knowledge better when reading from hard copy paper as opposed to a computer screen.

   The primary difference lies in which portion of the brain is active during the reading process.  When reading from a stagnant, hard copy paper - such as a book - the portion of the brain that deals with long-term memory is the active element; when reading from a computer screen, where the text has to be scrolled and is augmented with window-dressing distractions such as hyperlinks, videos and other types of moving graphics, ads, etc., the portion of the brain that deals with entertainment, pleasure and dopamine release is processing that information.

   In a recent study of the effects of technological interface on reading comprehension in Norway schools, conducted by Mangena, Walgermoa, and  Brønnicka the effects of the technological interface on reading comprehension in Norwegian school students was cataloged.

   According to the study's conclusion, the “main findings show that students who read texts in print scored significantly better on the reading comprehension test than students who read the texts digitally.”

   With all of the built-in distractions of computer or other personal devices that schools now use as the primary tool to teach their students, a stagnant, paper-based format still appears to be the better method of imparting knowledge for the long term.  According to a 2004 report from Garland & Noyes,  ‘‘The knowledge transition was much more rapid for those learning from printed material, suggesting less interference to the process of schematization, and consequently more readily applied knowledge. Hence, this suggests there still appears to be a benefit attached to learning from paper-based rather than computer-based materials’’ (Garland & Noyes, 2004, p. 51).

   In a 2006 study of 60 fifth-grade students who read two expository texts, one in print and one on a computer screen, it was found that the children were more efficient at comprehending the texts when reading from paper (comprehension calculated as a product of accuracy and reading rate). These findings suggest that ‘‘while children, if given enough time, [may] be able to comprehend equal amounts of information from paper and computer, when reading time is accounted children are comprehending less efficiently when reading from computer’’ (Kerr & Symons, 2006, pp. 13–14).

   When reading from hard copy paper, the brain “maps” the text and is able to remember where on the page a particular piece of information was printed thus enabling more efficient recall.  Many studies have shown that people who primarily read from books are able to recall which quadrant of a page the information was located in, even if a great deal of time had passed since the initial reading of the material.  These spatial memory maps of printed material created by the brain are nearly impossible to duplicate when using a computer screen due to the constant scrolling and movement of the text in and out of view with no overall view of the work area the text is displayed in.  This problem is also compounded by any moving images or objects on the page designed as web element designs.

   According to the Norway study, “Evidence suggests that readers often recall where in a text some particular piece of information appeared (e.g., toward the upper right corner or at the bottom of the page) (Piolat et al., 1997; Rothkopf, 1971; Zechmeister & McKillip, 1972). We know from empirical and theoretical research that having a good spatial mental representation of the physical layout of the text supports reading comprehension (Baccino & Pynte, 1994; Cataldo & Oakhill, 2000; Kintsch, 1998; Piolat et al., 1997). For instance, Cataldo and Oakhill (2000) found that good comprehenders were significantly better than poor comprehenders at remembering and relocating the order of information in a text, hence implying a relation between mental reconstruction of text structure and reading comprehension.”

   “Readers in the computer condition were restricted to seeing (and sensing) only one page of the text at any given time of reading. Hence, their overview of the organization, structure and flow of the text (Eklundh, 1992; Piolat et al., 1997) might have been hampered due to limited access to the text in its entirety. As noted by Kerr and Symons (2006), ‘‘difficulties in reading from computers may be due to disrupted mental maps of the text, which may be reflected in poorer understanding and ultimately poorer recall of presented material’”

   “Several studies of the spatial mapping phenomenon have concluded that scrolling is known to hamper the process of reading, by imposing a spatial instability which may negatively affect the reader’s mental representation of the text and, by implication, comprehension Baccino, 2004; Eklundh, 1992; Piolat, Roussey, & Thunin, 1997).”

   Since so many people today are using display screens for trivial information such as Facebook, YouTube, texting, gaming and light entertainment, the brain is conditioned to not commit information viewed from those devices to long-term memory.  A study by Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011) concluded that people appear to perceive the medium of print as more suitable for effortful learning, whereas the electronic medium (such as, a computer or similar electronic device) is better suited for ‘‘fast and shallow reading of short texts” such as news, e-mails, and Facebook posts. “The common perception of screen presentation as an information source intended for shallow messages may reduce the mobilization of cognitive resources that is needed for effective long-term memory.”    The researchers in the Norway study summarized the results of this study to “indicate that reading linear narrative and expository texts on a computer screen leads to poorer reading comprehension than reading the same texts on paper. These results have several pedagogical implications.”

   In a Scientific American story on the subject, Ferris Jabr writes, “Evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension. Compared with paper, screens may also drain more of our mental resources while we are reading and make it a little harder to remember what we read when we are done. A parallel line of research focuses on people's attitudes toward different kinds of media. Whether they realize it or not, many people approach computers and tablets with a state of mind less conducive to learning than the one they bring to paper.”

   Jabr goes on to describe the spatial mapping process that occurs with the printed page, “An open paperback presents a reader with two clearly defined domains—the left and right pages—and a total of eight corners with which to orient oneself. A reader can focus on a single page of a paper book without losing sight of the whole text: one can see where the book begins and ends and where one page is in relation to those borders...All these features not only make text in a paper book easily navigable, they also make it easier to form a coherent mental map of the text.”  He says the electronic counterpart is a much different experience; “In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds. A reader of digital text might scroll through a seamless stream of words, tap forward one page at a time or use the search function to immediately locate a particular phrase—but it is difficult to see any one passage in the context of the entire text.”

   Caroline Myrberg & Ninna Wiberg from the international book and magazine trade group, UKSG noted, “Generally, the apps for e-reading lack the ability to present essential spatial landmarks, they give poor feedback on your progress as you read, and make it difficult for you to plan your reading since they do not show how much is left of the chapter/book in a direct and transparent way. Other drawbacks are that usually, the reading applications do not sync between devices and it is not always possible to adjust the text to the screen. Granted, you can reflow PDFs in most PDF readers, but then you cannot make any notes and all tables and pictures will disappear from the text.”

    “Researchers have noticed changes in reading behavior as readers adopt new habits while interfacing with digital devices. For example, findings by Ziming Liu claimed that digital screen readers engaged in greater use of shortcuts such as browsing for keywords and selectivity. Moreover, they were more likely to read a document only once and expend less time with in-depth reading. Such habits raise concern about the implications for academic learning.”

   Researchers note a difference between remembering, or memorizing, information and actually knowing it.  Memorization is a lighter form of learning which fades over time while knowing the information comes from deeper, more long term portions of the brain's memory bank.  On-screen data has been found to be stored in the memorization portion of the brain, while in-print data from a book, once it is learned, settles into the more permanent knowing or knowledge portion.

   Computers and personal devices, with their cornucopia of data, entertainment, social networking and gaming available at a microsecond's notice inundate users with a veritable ocean of mostly useless data which can at times be overwhelming, thus inhibiting the learning experience. Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Victoria Dunckley says, “As a practitioner, I observe that many of the children I see suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep, and a hyper aroused nervous system, regardless of diagnosis—what I call electronic screen syndrome. These children are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention.”

   It is this system of computer screens and all of their negative effects on learning that public schools are now relying on exclusively to teach the next generation.



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