Naomi S. Baron’s post How E-Reading Threatens Learning in the Humanities on the Chronicles of Higher Learning is thought provoking and eye opening. I expect her new book Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World coming later this fall to offer similar insights.
The post laments the loss of deep reading in part attributed to students working ebooks and digital readers, but fails address that the problem is that students are not being trained how to use new tools to accomplish familiar tasks.
I credit Baron for recognizing the symptoms of the disease – lack of appreciation for long-form reading, but worry about her prescribed course of treatment. There seems to be little doubt that wrestling a meaty text requires concentration, reflection, and thoughtfulness, but blaming the tool seems to assign little responsibility to user.
The challenge of digital reading for the humanities is that screens—particularly those on devices with Internet connections—undermine our encounters with meaty texts. These devices weren’t designed for focused concentration, reading slowly, pausing to argue virtually with the author, or rereading. Rather, they are information and communication machines, best used for searching and skimming—not scrutinizing.
Readers need training to properly to deal with the interconnectedness of the present to succeed in the future. Marc Prensky’s concept of the Digital Native is often misinterpreted to assume that students already have the requisite skills to use technology and don’t need tech training. It is imperative that we show students how to use the tools to gain the advantages they offer while eliminating or minimizing the disadvantages.
Let’s focus on “deep reading” on an e-reader. Students should be shown how put their tool in the do not disturb mode to eliminate distractions. Distractibility should not only be addressed through settings on the device. Students need to learn how to avoid distraction in the same way we encourage perseverance or grit. They also need to be instructed to re-read passages and that each reading can be used for different purposes – true of paper and ebook. The ebook experience allows the reader to highlight in different colors, search previous annotations, search the text, and even cut and paste passages to share with others. All of these ebook tools can create a rich reading experience as well as improve classroom discussion.
I understand Baron’s frustrations and concerns. Her surveys of older students are in line with our experiences at Providence Day School. Older students often lack the experiences and training to leverage the new tools and tend to be more resistant than younger students. However, students in classrooms where instructors set expectations and provide necessary support or training find that students excel with the new tools.
I think Baron’s findings should be seen as clarion call to those of us in k-12 learning institutions to better prepare our students to use the tools we provide.