Recently, I came across an interesting article on students’ attitudes to reading online vs. in textbooks. The article appeared in the Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Esther Wojcicki, a teacher, relates her students’ reactions to being asked to read online. She reports that
…early in the school year many of these students had written a fiery editorial about e-textbooks in their social studies classes. In part it read, “… online textbooks hinder study habits and force the use of computers. … and are detrimental to learning and inconvenient.” The editorial concluded with these words: “If the school wishes to cultivate the use of e-books, it should at the very least offer students the option to continue using the old, hardcover books.”
The teacher thought that six months of use of online reading devices (she doesn’t say which, but I am assuming that a Kindle device was involved, since she says that this happened before the iPad was released) would accustom students to the new medium. She was wrong.
In discussing the topic with her students, she found that
With hardcover books, they told me, they can highlight sections and flip through and scan pages more easily; reviewing the highlighted pages helps them remember facts.
None of her students had bought an iPad after it was released, but a few played with it in the store. In the absence of compelling software to support active reading, they did not find the device obviously useful for learning.
Wojcicki cites an Internet analyst who offers the opinion that the students “…are just wrong. … just plain wrong. They don’t know because they can’t even conceptualize what is coming.” The implication is that these devices will in fact revolutionize the textbook market, but the students are not able to understand that. The issue, however, is more nuanced.
The students are not experts on the devices, but they are aware of their own work practices with respect to studying from books. Electronic reading devices will only be successful if their designers pay attention to what students do with textbooks, and design tools to support and augment their work practices. If that is done well enough, then the analyst’s prediction will be correct; if, however, the hardware and software combination fails to support active reading well, then students will continue to reject the medium as inadequate to their task.
Simply thrusting generic hardware and software at schools will not improve the quality or quantity of learning; instead, it may do exactly the opposite. Schools need take a much more critical and skeptical attitude toward these technologies, and have to listen to what their students say, rather than dismissing their reactions and hoping they will adapt.