Paper vs. Screen: Can you do academic reading on an iPad?

Last year I interviewed a bunch of college teachers as part of a work project.  Although my focus was getting user feedback on a new online educational product, as an aside, I asked the group about their own and their students’ attitude towards e-texts. I was struck by how uniform they were in dissing e-textbooks, and how frustrated students were with them.

iPad vs. dog-eared treasured volume? Which does your brain really want?

For this group (a very small n), e-readers (whatever the brand) were personal objects, fine for “recreational reading” but not suitable for academic work. Surprisingly, this even was true for law and criminal justice students, who have to lug around such massive tomes. You’d think that the weight factor would trump other considerations, but it wasn’t so.

When I probed a bit for reasons, the most frequent answer was that page numbers were not uniform (which would seem to be an easy problem to solve technically, but is kind of a psychological barrier; “80 pages of econ to read by Friday” being a college trope ). Also mentioned were the difficultly of note-taking and highlighting (functions that are available, but a bit more complicated than on paper) and the generally bad (or at least different) layout and typography.

IScreen Shot 2013-05-12 at 5.23.47 PM have an iPad and have found it okay for reading fiction. I have read William Morris’ News from Nowhere (somewhat ironic that given his anti-technology philosophy) and Jude The Obscure, both free from Project Gutenberg, and I bought Bullfighting, a collection of short stories by Roddy Doyle, in an e-edition. The cognitive experience didn’t feel much different, and although I wasn’t trying to do anything that people complain about (reading assigned pages, jumping around, taking notes, copying sections etc.) They were all wonderful by the way. Also, I am an “Alice in Wonderland” style reader:

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.

‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

Given that it’s always been hard for me to do anything but work through a book from page 1–or to stop reading a book, however lousy, once I’ve started–perhaps I’m not a fair test of e-reading versus print. That said, I haven’t read much non-fiction on an e-reader, except for O’Reilly books, including a book on how to use Apple’s iBook Author program, (which ironically, would have been much easier for me to deal with in printed form).

All this as (overlong) preliminary to an interesting piece in Scientific American on the brain in e-reading.

The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens

How exactly does the technology we use to read change the way we read? How reading on screens differs from reading on paper is relevant not just to the youngest among us, but to just about everyone who reads—to anyone who routinely switches between working long hours in front of a computer at the office and leisurely reading paper magazines and books at home; to people who have embraced e-readers for their convenience and portability, but admit that for some reason they still prefer reading on paper; and to those who have already vowed to forgo tree pulp entirely. As digital texts and technologies become more prevalent, we gain new and more mobile ways of reading—but are we still reading as attentively and thoroughly? How do our brains respond differently to onscreen text than to words on paper? Should we be worried about dividing our attention between pixels and ink or is the validity of such concerns paper-thin?

Read the full article.

I wonder if MOOCs come with print textbook requirements? Would seem as archaic as requiring a modern college student to bring a typewriter…


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