Whether it’s an effort to be more “green” or to save students the cost of textbooks, more and more professors seem to be assigning readings in the form of PDF files or online articles instead of physical textbooks. There are lots of benefits to this fairly new educational tool. For one thing, it allows professors to assign a variety of different sources from different texts, authors, and time periods. And it saves you a good chunk of money.
But is this what students prefer? When the professor of a class I had early last week asked the students to vote on whether she should put together a course reader for students to buy, less than 10 of the 50 voted yes. All other students seemed to prefer reading the files from their computer screens. Some of the students who voted no to the course reader muttered that they didn’t want to have to pay for the physical copy of the files. A fairly low price (about $15) for a course reader, however, might indicate that those who voted no did so because of a preference of medium, not of price.
This is a personal gripe of mine. Staring at a PDF of Louis Althusser’s Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses makes me want to do just about anything else—like stare at Facebook instead. The way we read online or on a computer screen is very different from the way we read text on paper. Studies have shown that we tend to skim rather than read full texts from a screen, with a much shorter attention span.
Of course, having large titles, pictures, and captions, but small paragraphs, makes it easier for readers to get the main points of a piece of writing and then bounce to the next one. Reading becomes more efficient in terms of finding a particular idea, but it often loses depth. We, the people of the so-called “Net Generation”, have been said to be at risk of becoming “pancake people”, knowing very little about so much but not thoroughly understanding most topics.
Because we spend so much time reading off of screens, the kind of browsing we do on a screen has also altered how we read physical pages. Ever noticed how when you actually do read from a physical text, you can’t help checking your phone every 10 minutes? The ability to hit Ctrl+F and scroll through dozens of pages at once to find what we want has made us impatient with tangible texts—especially if they’re as hefty as Althusser.
More research needs to be done to fully understand the differences between the cognitive processes involved in print and online reading but other research also suggests that online reading may be much less beneficial. A 2008 article in Scientific American explains how hyperlinks, images and other features of the web prevent readers from completing a mental image based on the content of a piece of writing.
The article also cites the necessity of “physical manipulation” of the computer while one reads as a reason for decreased efficiency. The need to scroll up and down a page is disruptive to the reading process.
Some software now makes it easier to highlight and add notes to those troublesome PDFs, but since our brains treat screen and print reading so differently, we need to take separate study approaches when reading from the different media types.
Perhaps most importantly, there’s still a certain intimacy that comes with reading a book made of paper and ink. So this weekend I’m going to print out a copy of my readings for the week and snuggle into one of those library armchairs with a highlighter in hand, partly because I don’t want to be categorized as a breakfast food, but also partly because I miss that intimacy.