Could shifting from print to online learning be harming the education of the world’s students?
Commentary written by Sam Upton
As the developed world emerges from the pandemic and regains some sense of normality, the world of education is moving back to its previous ways of working. In the UK, younger children have been back at school for a while, their teachers working hard to help them catch up on in-person learning. But many universities and further education colleges still have strict rules in place over tuition, with many continuing online lectures.
As well as having to watch and listen to lectures on a small screen, more and more students have had to transition to digital textbooks and multimedia content to learn their subjects. This throws up the question of whether their education is affected by learning from a screen rather than print books.
“I have been studying how electronic communication compares to traditional print when it comes to learning,” says Naomi Baron, Professor of Linguistics Emerita at American University in Washington DC. “Is comprehension the same whether a person reads a text onscreen or on paper? And is listening and viewing content as effective as reading the written word when covering the same material? The answers to both questions are often ‘No’.”
The Focus Factor
Professor Baron has just released her latest book, How To Read Now. In it she details the impact of using different mediums on learning, explaining why certain mediums are better for certain educational tasks. While video and audio have a place in the classroom, delivering background and context to a number of subjects, print delivers a vast number of advantages for learning, including:
• Recalling details, such as events and where those events occurred.
• Comprehension – studies show that students score higher when reading course material in print.1
• Mental abstraction, such as drawing inferences from a text.
As well as quantitative evidence that print is better for learning, research by Professor Baron also found a preference for paper amongst the students themselves. Having surveyed over 400 students in five countries about their reading practices, the study found that 92% said they concentrated best when reading in print. The respondents also overwhelmingly judged reading on paper as better for concentration, learning and remembering than reading digitally.2
“The discrepancies between print and digital results are partly related to paper’s physical properties,” says Professor Baron. “With paper, there is a literal laying on of hands, along with the visual geography of distinct pages. People often link their memory of what they’ve read to how far into the book it was or where it was on the page.”
Making New Connections
While the link between the senses is undoubtedly a key reason why print continues to be better for education, the issue of improved concentration is also a factor. The readability of text on print has been honed over centuries to be as simple and accessible as possible. The font, character size, space between lines – all are ideal for the human mind to process.
For textbooks, being able to flick quickly through the pages, cross-referencing words, statements and sections can also build vital connections that spark ideas or new ways of thinking. When you compare print’s enduring potential to deliver inspiration and insight with the distractions of online content and the temptation to multitask, print should have a permanent place on the curriculum.
1Effects of Processing Time on Comprehension and Calibration in Print and Digital Mediums, Singer Trakhman, Alexander & Berkowitz, 2017
2The persistence of print among university students: An exploratory study, Baron, Calixte, Havewala, 2017