Text vs. Digital: What are the Advantages and the Costs?

Submitted a year ago
Created by
Brad Choyt
There’s no denying it: we are moving from a paper world to a digital one. On the one hand, digital textbooks are more environmentally friendly and students who use them don’t have to carry around backpacks that may weigh more than they do. But on the other hand, educators don’t know a lot about the impact on learning as students transition from marking passages and turning pages on texts to scrolling with the slight motion of their fingers on tablets.   

In their article published this month in the Business Insider, Patricia A. Alexander and Lauren M. Singer focused on the advantages and limitations between reading print and digital media. One interesting finding from their research: today’s students overwhelmingly preferred to read on screens and believed they performed better when they did so. However, in certain instances, research showed that their reading comprehension suffered. This was particularly true when the text was longer than one page in length. Alexander and Singer also noted that while the medium did not have an impact on students’ understanding of the main idea of the text, students who read a printed version had significantly better comprehension with the more detailed topics that were covered.  

To me, the biggest takeaway from Alexander’s and Singer’s research was that teachers should carefully consider the purpose of the reading assignment before choosing the medium. When students are asked to understand the “big idea,” digital and text are both good options. But when striving for deeper comprehension, teachers are likely to see better results when students read print. So while there is a greater economic and environmental cost to producing those piles of textbooks, perhaps students shouldn’t throw away their oversized backpacks just yet.  
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