18 October 2009

Story Time

I taught myself to read when I was 2. We had those 45 records (except for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which needed a 33 RPM job) with the companion books. Somehow, listening to those and following along was enough to divine which sounds went with which symbols and the rest followed from there. Reading for pleasure has been a part of my life ever since. I like having books around the house as well as sharing and trading them with friends.

I have not, however, bought a Kindle. This is not because they aren't handy or cool. I know people you have them and love them. I am tempted to get one every time I hold one in my hands or hear how people are using them in different ways. While I appreciate what this piece of technology does, it's what it can't do that keeps me from buying one: It cannot provide the tactile and interactive experience of a book. What researchers are wondering is whether or not these sorts of cues impact the ability to read and process information, especially for young children (from Science Daily: Storybooks on Paper Better for Children):
Clicking and scrolling interrupt our attentional focus. Turning and touching the pages instead of clicking on the screen influence our ability for experience and attention. The physical manipulations we have to do with a computer, not related to the reading itself, disturb our mental appreciation, says associate professor Anne Mangen at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway. She has investigated the pros and cons of new reading devices.

Mangen maintains that reading on a screen generates a new form of mental orientation. The reader loses both the completeness and constituent parts of the physical appearance of the reading material. The physical substance of a book offers tranquility. The text does not move on the page like it does on a screen.

"Several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory. We should include this in our evaluation of digital teaching aids. The technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but we know little about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that," Mangen believes.

Somehow, the idea of sitting down with a little one and a Kindle does not make for the same pleasant imagery as a child with an actual picture book. I have to wonder if it is possible at all to replace that.

I like turning pages---seeing the progress I've made through a novel. When I'm using a text for work or professional development, I want my pad of sticky notes handy to make notes to place in the book. I enjoy seeing the layout of text on a page---the choices of fonts and margins and headings. With all the wonderful things a Kindle can do, it is not (currently) able to replace any of these. College students who are piloting the use of Kindles as a substitute for texts are discovering the same disadvantages, but they also have some compliments (from eSchool News):

Most like how light the device is--just over a pound--and many would be willing to overlook technical hassles if it meant not having to carry any books. Most still had to buy and carry textbooks for non-Kindle classes this fall.

Students also were impressed with the "electronic ink" screen, which Amazon touts as far easier on the eyes than reading off a computer monitor. But it can't be backlit, disappointing one student who wants to read during dark early-morning bus commutes.

Kraizel, the Case Western freshman, says always having the Kindle with her has improved her study habits. It's much easier to cram in a few minutes of studying between classes, she says, and she's noticed that when she sits down for a serious study session she's more familiar with the material.

The Kindle also can do things books can't, like read homework aloud. Una Hopkins, a 46-year-old student in the nurse-practitioner program at Pace University in New York, got five chapters finished that way when she was stuck in traffic.

"It was robotic, but it got me where I needed to go," Hopkins says.

The device's usefulness goes beyond textbooks: Another Washington grad student in computer science, Franziska Roesner, has used the web browser to read and write eMail when she's away from her computer. It's slow, but it worked, she says.

And sometimes its uses go beyond productivity entirely. Students at Arizona State have found the Minesweeper video game that comes with the device. They've also figured out how to download music.

Roesner, who was steeped in Kindle hype as an intern at Amazon over the past two summers, lamented the device's problems with PDFs, which make up the bulk of this quarter's assignments. Still, she won't write off e-readers.

"If reading devices like this really come to replace reading paper," she wrote in an eMail, "I think in 20 years we'll look back at the Kindle with nostalgic affection and amusement, like we now look back at 1990s computers."

The quote at the end makes me smile. I can't be the only one who remembers learning to program in BASIC on a Tandy computer (or who had Apple IIe computers in my classroom when I started teaching). I think the point is well taken in that we can expect several iterations and evolutions of eReaders in the coming years. Until I can choose how to interact with the information on the screen, I'll stick with my analog books in this digital world.

1 comment:

Hugh O'Donnell said...

I'm having a hard time warming up to the cold type, too.

But perhaps the technology will vacuum up some souls who might not otherwise get into reading, eh?