As is evident from the “about” page on this blog, I am a fan of, among other things, brevity and reading. When I say “reading,” however, I refer to the kind that happens with a book in hand and words printed on paper. A bit of a traditionalist in that respect, seeing the spines of my books on the shelf is preferable to navigating through an e-reader for stored texts. When pressed about my reticence to ride the Kindle-wave in to the 21st century, I usually respond with: “I like the smell of books and the feel of the pages.” Or something equally as English majorish but a bit more flowery like, “I enjoy gazing at my bookshelf, letting my eye and mind wander from title to title, relishing the content contained therein.” Though I must say that I relish the content of Midnight’s Children or All the King’s Men much more than Marine Lover (an impossibly dense treatment of Nietzsche from a feminist perspective).
Enough digressing. The point is that Nicholas Carr, in the The Shallows, has given me some concrete reasons to substantiate what was more or less a visceral attraction to the conventional book. In his discussion of e-readers, specifically the Kindle, he notes that its “most radical feature, at least when it comes to thinking about what’s in store for books, is its incorporation of links* into the text it displays” (102). At first glance, this seems great. As you’re reading along, you can click on words and immediately see what Google or Wikipedia have to say about them, gathering more information that will enrich the reading experience and lead to deeper understanding. A logical conclusion, but research suggests just the opposite. Carr cites a 2001 study by Miall and Dobson, where two groups of subjects were given the same story to read. One group read a text with hyperlinks, as you would see online, the other a traditional linear text. The link group reported “more confusion and uncertainty. . . Three-quarters of them said they had difficulty following the text, while only one in ten of the linear-text readers reported such problems” (127). That’s just one of many studies that have yielded similar results. While hypertext undoubtedly gives the reader access to more information, it turns out that such access does not translate to improved understanding or comprehension. When reading a text with links scattered throughout, even without clicking on them, their mere presence diverts the reader’s attention enough to disrupt the flow of information and affect comprehension and recall.
In an age where multimedia and technological inclusion in the classroom has become somewhat of a directive, it would be irresponsible for educators not to consider the cognitive implications of students’ increased screen time. Many students are already spending several hours per day online searching and reading (or skimming) about whatever interests them. Teachers are always looking for ways to engage students by utilizing their interests for classroom purposes. Logically, it follows that including collaborative wiki projects, class blogs, or podcasting would be a great way of redirecting the appeal of technology toward academic endeavor. Having students do research and read articles online illustrates how useful the internet is for learning and exploration. Educators, it would seem, have a bit of a tightrope to walk here. The internet is clearly here to stay, and students need to learn how to use it to their advantage, but displacing the traditional reading experience, and the prolonged attention that it demands, by including more and more online work may eventually end up doing them a disservice.
*hyperlinks intentionally omitted from this post.