Digital vs. Print: Does Medium Affect Literacy?
“I used to write about this hinge moment between digital and print. It's no longer a hinge moment. We've become a digital culture,” says Dr. Maryanne Wolf in Episode 9 of our All of Literacy podcast, where host Dr. Liz Brooke sits down with key industry experts to discuss literacy and beyond.
Wolf and Brooke discuss the advantages and disadvantages of digital media when it comes to literacy, comprehension, and human behavior. “All of this research is showing us that there are advantages and there are real disadvantages to cognitive development, to linguistic development,” Wolf says.
Wolf argues that the reading brain reflects the medium—“The medium's characteristics are called affordances. And the affordances of print are different from the affordances of digital,” she emphasizes.
With the steep rise of digital media during the last few decades, what is the research saying about the difference between print and digital when it comes to literacy? Here are four things you should know.
Digital media encourages skimming
Several aspects of digital media increase skimming behavior in readers, including the format, common writing styles, and the sheer volume of digital materials we encounter in our everyday lives. Wolf points out that resorting to skimming is a defense mechanism we use to combat the “unbelievable amount of words that we process every single day.”
One study from the Association of Information Systems found that reading digital media increases the likelihood a reader will skim for specific keywords and scan impatiently and ruthlessly for what they are looking for, both behaviors which detract from one’s ability to read deeply.
Wolf goes so far as to suggest this skimming behavior means readers do not take adequate time for critical analysis and often miss the opportunity to discern between information and misinformation. This “leads to [readers] being susceptible to demagoguery, polarization,” she explains. When readers do not take the time to think critically about what they’re reading or the sources at hand, it’s easy to only take in the information that confirms the reader’s original biases—“Now, you have a very susceptible population to thinking that they are doing the correct thing when they are simply conforming to whatever they got from these familiar sources,” Wolf says.
So, while skimming can help our minds deal with the large volume of information that crosses our path every day, the behavior can have negative consequences in the long run on our ability to fully comprehend and think critically about the information.
Digital media increases multitasking and distractibility
Psychology Today states that 90% of students said they would be more likely to multitask while reading digitally. With games, the internet, and other information often just a few clicks away, reading digitally makes it easy to attempt to do more than one thing at a time or become distracted.
Studies show that learning is negatively affected by multitasking and thus digital media is likely to decrease a reader’s ability to understand and retain a text’s information. However, it should be noted that the digital media format has a large effect on distractibility—an e-reader in the classroom with no interactive buttons or facets will likely be less distracting than a document on the internet subject to ads, hyperlinks, and easy-to-access programs.
Digital media lowers comprehension
Research points to the idea that reading digital media decreases the reader's ability to comprehend or deeply understand the material. An extensive study of more than 170,000 students concluded digital-based reading “could prevent readers from fully benefiting from their reading comprehension abilities and keep children from developing these skills in the first place.”
Wolf brings up a study that showed the comprehension of young adult readers “for things like the sequencing of details [and] a lot of different things related to understanding are better [with print media].” Both the skimming and multitasking effects of digital media contribute to this lower level of understanding and the ability to think critically.
On the flip side, many readers believe digital media helps them learn more. “They believe that they're better on digital because they say they're faster and they equate speed with doing better,” Wolf explains.
Digital media increases access to information
While its tempting to focus only on the negatives of digital media when it comes to literacy and learning, digital media does include benefits for young learners.
Due to budget restraints or other hurdles, some districts and classrooms may be limited in the number of textbooks or other print materials present in the classroom. Having digital access means these educators can provide an increased amount of information to curious students.
Similarly, digital media allows for easy sharing and dissemination—cutting down on the time teachers would otherwise spend copying, printing, or acquiring printed materials.
The future of digital media and literacy
While many studies have been completed and more are underway, there are still many unknowns when it comes to the effect of digital media on literacy. “We're [at] the frontier of knowledge, and it's a really harsh reality that our innovations are ahead of our knowledge,” Wolf says.
Tune in to Episode 9 of the All for Literacy podcast with Dr. Wolf to understand the relationship between digital media and literacy and how to apply this knowledge to classrooms, schools, and lessons.
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