15 March 2012

Read All About It, Part III: So What?

I've been thinking about digital texts and sources---in particular their differences from print texts and what student skills are necessary to comprehend them. I think conversation about this is long overdue...and, unfortunately, too little too late. Some will cheer on the "disruptive" nature of mobile devices, but if we can't teach kids how to read with these...what's the point?

Most of the current arguments for replacing analog texts with digital versions are stupid, pandering to the lowest level of reason.
  • Print text is old. In general, the lack of updates is not a problem. Hamlet hasn't changed in hundreds of years...2 + 2 is still 4...and even in those areas which change (e.g. the sciences), almost none of the advancements are at an entry level for student learning. I agree that updating texts is infrequent...and recent mergers of book companies have done nothing to improve quality. But assuming that digital will automatically be better because "It's new!" is faulty reasoning. There's no guarantee that a digital text will be better written or designed than an analog book.
  • Books are heavy. Um, yes and duh. However, this says nothing about the quality of the content or their value to learning. If you hear someone in edtech say that the change in the weight of a backpack is the argument to sell parents on buying an iPad, run in the other direction. Anyone who insults the community like this deserves to be tarred and feathered. If you don't have a reason why the digital text will improve student learning, then stay out of the conversation until you have something intelligent to add.
  • Digital texts are more engaging and have more advantages than print alone. So far, the research isn't showing that having the ability to click here, there, and everywhere is positive for student learning. As we saw in the last post, comprehension of digital texts requires more skills than for print. While not an insurmountable or inappropriate issue to address, it's naive to assume that digital is just a sub for print. Meanwhile, distraction while reading is not a positive thing. (see Willingham's recent post on Ereaders and distractability for research.) Can I also say that I hate the implicit suggestion here that analog books are boring...or that we all had a shitty education because we were limited to print materials? (Poor us!) Finally, at this point, several informal studies indicate that college students might try digital books---but end up wanting print versions (also see Etextbooks: Students are not loving them). My interpretation on this is that (a) if you only know how to use a print book, you're not going to have all the skills necessary to transition to digital, and (b) digital texts currently do not come with features students want...just what designers thought they could do.
All this being said, digital texts and sources are going to play a larger part in the classroom from now on. Common Core State Standards, now adopted in 46 states, include the use of digital media---but not a single reading skill specifically related to reading online. Big. Freakin'. Mistake. And I would be willing to bet that not one of the states that has elected to add content to the standards has picked online reading skills as a piece.

So, what's a teacher to make out of all of this?
  • New standards will require students to be fluent with digital media.
  • Reading print and digital text requires different strategies. Don't assume that your students understand how to apply their reading skills to digital text.
  • Be intentional about showing students different formats (blogs, wikis, search results) and how to read them. Take the time to teach students to be critical users of this information.
  • Be aware that comprehension decreases with screen size (and reading time increases). The "Bring Your Own Device" revolution will not all be all unicorns and rainbows when it comes to student learning.
  • Digital sources will provide students with multiple ways to engage with content, but that does not mean they know how to choose or make sense of that information. Only you can help direct and coach them to success. New technologies do not negate the role and responsibility of the teacher.
I'm sure I'll come back to revisit this topic as more information becomes available. And, pending certain events in the next few weeks, I plan to make this a focus at next year's conference circuit. If you have resources to add, questions to ask, or criticism to consider, leave it in the comments.

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