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!