eBooks, Paper, and the Net Generation – Are we asking the right questions?

A recent article on the Wired Campus blog in the Choronicle of Higher Education reported that Students Prefer Print for Serious Academic Reading. I am amazed at just how viceral my reaction is to this type of research. My issues with this article are the authors' attempt to generalize and the authors equating serious academic reading with the reading of textbooks. Finally, I am left wondering, are we asking the right questions?

Attempting to Generalize

The sample size for this study is 17, where all students attend the same university. The author might be able to generalize to the one university (that is, to say that students at CUNY prefer paper), but a study at a single university cannot be representative of all college students.

They study also attempts to generalize across technologies. All textbooks, eReaders, and digital textbooks are treated the same. Unfortunately, not all digital textbooks are created equal. Some are just electronic versions of the printed text, which were initially designed for print, such that they don't take advantage of any of the benefits of being digital. eReaders are also not one-in-the-same. A basic Kobo/Kindle eInk Reader and an iPad have very different capabilities.

Equating Serious Academic Reading with Reading of Textbooks

Serious academic reading is equated to the reading of textbooks. In my experience, serious acadmic reading also involves reading of journal articles and other reports.

The author of the original article makes an interesting point regarding the Net Generation (18-25 years olds), who "see themselves as as belonging to the generation before the first truly digital generation" (para 7). This generation of students learned to study/learn using paper textbooks. Is it any surprise that they would be more comfortable studying with paper? Perhaps if they were taught how to use the eReaders/eTextbooks etc. for studying – and how to make the most of the technology – that there preference might change?

I think it will also be interesting to see how things change, as the reliance of textbooks changes. K-12 educators are not relying on textbooks as heavily as they have in the past. Tablets and net books are making one-to-one computing more affordable, which is changing the resources that teachers use. Teachers are relying less on textbooks, and are taking advantage of the varity of other resources that are available on the Internet. This will have an affect on how students learn to learn. They are likely to learn new ways of studying, which in-turn will have a ripple effect on how they learn in school. The Net Generation isn't the Mobile Generation. eReaders and Tablets were not the norm when they began school or in their formative years, so we cannot assume they know how to use them or how to learn with them!

Perhaps a study should be done that compares students choice of print to electronic, after students have been taught how to use the electronic devices effectively for learning. For example, I know many people who prefer print for reading journal articles because they want to be able to scrawl notes in the margin, and they have a system for filing printed articles. If they are taught how to use a stylus and appropriate software to scrawl their notes, and how to sync the articles to their computers, would their behaviour change? That would be an interesting study, regardless of the age of the participants!

3 Comments on eBooks, Paper, and the Net Generation – Are we asking the right questions?

  1. Hi, author of the article here.  Thanks for your comments. 

    Of course, 17 is a very small number of students. I chose to look at only 17 because I wanted to look at fairly specific aspects of students' lives to identify what made the difference when they were choosing among various formats.  Of course it isn't generalizable. I did my best to be explicit about that in my article.  It's only the Chronicle article that sounds that way–things often get simplified in the press!

    So I didn't want to generalize about students; what I wanted to look at is some ways in which students might integrate different formats into their lives.   That's one reason that the paper itself relies fairly heavily on quotations from students, although I do also look at them in the aggregate because interesting patterns pop out.

    You bring up another nuance of the study that got flattened a little here–what is meant by academic reading. That was actually a surprise for me as I was looking through the data–a HUGE portion of the students' course-related reading consisted of textbooks, much more than I expected.  So textbooks are important because they are a big part of what students do. I did include other kinds of academic reading in my analysis, and in fact, I found that while these students sometimes did read academic articles online, many of them preferred to print them out to read them.

    I love the point you make about the difference between what you call the "Net Generation" and the "Mobile Generation."  In fact, I quote a student saying almost the same thing in my paper. It is certainly possible that the next generation of students will feel differently.  On the other hand, I think it's important to notice that the current generation fo students isn't, technologically, where they are sometimes assumed to be.

    Finally, your point about teaching students to use e-books better.  Well…  Yes, that might improve student attitudes toward them, for the students who received such instruction.  Certainly it would help students who did use e-books to get more out of them.   You could even use studies like this one to make such an argument, and in fact, many articles have done that.  They find that these resources are unpopular with students and conclude that further promotion and education is necessary.  I didn't make that argument, because so far it is not clear to me why we should be pushing students toward e-books if they aren't already drawn to them.

    Anyway, I thought I should address your comments, and I really wanted to thank you for writing about my little study.  So, thank you.

    (And I'm sorry about responding so long after the post was written; I had some trouble clicking through the first time I tried and forgot about this for a while.)

    • Hi Nancy,

      Thanks for your comment. I find it encouraging when I see that others are reading my posts :). Can you do me a favour and send me the reference to your full article? I think people might find it interesting to read the full study.

      Thanks

      Rebecca

  2. Great points.  I also remember not "preferring" to use Microfiche as a grad student in history.  However the resources I needed were only available in fiche at my university and I used it for hours a day.  Given fiscal realities – students simply need to read the sources in whatever format is available.

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