Let’s be frank. E-readers and e-books are pretty neat. They can pack an entire library into a portable gadget allowing the reader free range over multiple tomes or ready access to the complete works of a particular author. Passages can be searched, annotated, high-lighted and shared with other readers. But immediate advantages aside, do you have a nagging impression that the experience of reading an e-book is qualitatively different than that from a paper book? If so, you’re in good company. According to an article at Time Healthland even notables such as Larry Page of Google are having doubts about the new technology. Common complaints about e-books include increased fatigue, lack of attention span (engagement) and reduced reading speed. Not a pretty list considering the high hopes the technology holds in education and training circles as a new medium for textbooks, workbooks, technical papers and course content. To make matters worse, decreased recall and increased time-to-learn are being added to the list as further broadsides against the general deployment of the new medium as an educational tool.
According to Time Healthland author Maia Szalavitz, cognitive psychologist Kate Garland at the University of Leicester in the UK has determined that print has some subtle advantages over pixels when it comes to learning new information. As reported by Szalavitz, Garland and her colleagues found:
- More repetition was required with computer reading to impart the same information
- Book readers seemed to digest the material more fully
Szalavitz goes on to say that Garland takes the process of factual recollection to be either instant recall (“knowing”) or search and retrieval (“remembering”). Subjects who learned via paper books seemed to “know” the material sooner than those who used electronic media.
“What we found was that people on paper started to ‘know’ the material more quickly over the passage of time. It took longer and [required] more repeated testing to get into that knowing state [with the computer reading, but] eventually the people who did it on the computer caught up with the people who [were reading] on paper.” – Dr Kate Garland as quoted by TimeHealthland
A possible explanation of why paper books offer an advantage might involve contextual and navigational cues that are missing from e-books. E-books provide fewer spatial and navigational landmarks to readers and in so doing might subtly affect recall. Author Szalavitz:
“Context and landmarks may actually be important to going from ‘remembering’ to ‘knowing.’ The more associations a particular memory can trigger, the more easily it tends to be recalled. Consequently, seemingly irrelevant factors like remembering whether you read something at the top or the bottom of page — or whether it was on the right or left hand side of a two-page spread or near a graphic — can help cement material in mind.”
Add to the discussion the vast array of sizes, shapes, screen types and software designs that come into play in the design of e-books and e-readers and it is easy to see that the research possibilities explode. Whether concerns over the effectiveness of e-readers and e-books applies to online and web-based training is not discussed but begs to be considered as well. Let’s hope that Dr Garland and others continue the work on the cognitive differences between print and pixels. Some quantitative comparisons of the technologies would certainly be welcome. No doubt the topic of e-books will need to be revisited from time to time as technologies and applications unfold and grow in popularity.