Reading Comprehension, Electronic Texts, and the Digital Divide

What is the nature of literacy in the digital age? For those of us interested in new literacy studies and new literacies, that question is all you need to spark an action-packed evening conversation (or a semester graduate course for that matter). For this reason, I was delighted to see John Jones’s recent article on the DML Central web site (See “How Does Electronic Reading Affect Comprehension?”) and his announcement of a forthcoming article that will further explore this subject. The DML Hub is a high-traffic site that garners visits from plenty of practitioners, so placing the conversation on this site engages people who want to think about the practical implications for teaching and learning.  Jones summarizes and critiques a paper by Ferris Jabr in Scientific American, where Jabr compares reading comprehension on paper and on screen.  As reported by Jones, Jabr argues that paper text continues to have more affordances when it comes to reading comprehension.

It is a worthwhile conversation as we think about the use of text in learning environments, and Jones does a fine job drawing our attention to the limitations of Jabr’s claim. While comparing comprehension of text in paper versus a screen may be a helpful starting point, it seems too simple to talk about two mediums when there are dozens, even hundreds.  A medium is simply a “channel of communication,” and while some speak of the Internet, electronic text or “the screen” as a single medium, that is doing so in the broadest sense.  When it comes to thinking about reading comprehension, it strikes me as important to consider the different ways in which a reader might encounter and experience an electronic text (on a laptop; cell phone; a dual monitor setup; backlit tablet; a non-backlit tablet; as well as different ebook formats that bring with them distinct features like note-taking tools, different forms of pagination, definitions of words by hovering over them, search term features; as well as the ability to change things like background color, lighting, font type and size, and column width).

As I read the Jones article, my mind wandered to a separate but related topic (Aha! Proof of the distractibility of text on a screen!).  What if reading comprehension is slightly worse when reading on a screen versus paper?  What are the implications for learning environments?  Does that mean that I should print everything before reading it?  Does it mean that we should be sure to use more traditional paper texts in class and slow down on the heavy use of 1:1 classrooms?  Or, maybe it means that we should discourage teachers, administrators, students and people in the workplace from reading so much text on the screen.  If they care about comprehension, shouldn’t they get a paper version?

Of course, this is a bit of a straw man.  Few are arguing against the importance of exposing learners to text in different mediums. And yet, I suspect that my meandering thoughts are more informed by my interest in self-directed and project-based learning environments where it is not the teacher who selects most of the texts and text mediums for learners.  In a project, one does not choose the text medium simply because one medium is more likely to result in better reading comprehension.  The student/researcher chooses the texts that are most relevant to the inquiry, regardless of the medium. With the growing collection of digital resources, students have greater access to high-quality texts related to personal projects and inquiries than they do to equal paper texts.  While research on reading comprehension across mediums makes a good and important contribution to the field of education, my caution is about how we seek to apply knowledge about that research to the design of learning environments and experiences.

From an implications standpoint, the results of studies about comprehension of digital texts, while important, do not change the need to prepare people to negotiate meaning, navigate narratives, and experience connected learning in an increasingly blended and multi-modal world. This is especially true in more student-centered learning environments. In other words, even if we find studies that show a slightly higher comprehension in paper texts, that does not change the need to engage in new types of literacies. This is not a simple analysis that we use to decide whether to use a book or a laptop.  Context matters, and people who are unable to engage in literacy across modalities are at a significant disadvantage today, even to the point of having limited participation in a democratic society.  Much of the public discourse of our age takes place on a screen.  What happens when one struggles to negotiate meaning in that context?  That person is left out of the discourse and potentially placed on the sidelines, distanced from the action.

This is a growing understanding of what some of us mean when we talk about the digital divide.  In the 1990s and early 2000s, that term was mostly used to describe people who lacked access to the hardware and the Internet, but today the digital divide conversation is far more focused upon those who have access to the devices, but lack the experience or confidence to use them to read, write and learn in the mediums of our day. As a result, our challenge is not only to understand how reading comprehension differs from paper to screen, but it is also about how to increase reading comprehension across mediums.


Digital Culture & the Future of Educational Publishing

Already in the late 1990s, I heard predictions about the impending doom of educational publishers.  As the first experiments with e-readers and e-books emerged and early online residents discovered the potential of a read and write web, scholars and others publicly mused about the future of the publishing industry.  Today we see any number of significant trends that continue to impact educational publishers:

  • interactive and multi-modal e-books;
  • the web as network and social spaces more than a simple content repository;
  • mobile devices;
  • consumer demand to access the same resource across devices;
  • the new literacies notion of reading as socially-negotiated meaning;
  • open textbook projects;
  • open source publishing;
  • folksonomies;
  • print-on-demand;
  • social media as a blending of content, community, connectivity and collaboration;
  • any number of options for rapid editing and re-versioning;
  • the notion of the digital collective essay (as evidenced publicly on Wikipedia and more often privately in collective writing projects within Google Docs, Sharepoint, Wikis, etc.);
  • the online media sharing movement (e.g. YouTube as the second most used search engine next to Google);
  • adaptive educational software and personalized learning products (e.g. Dreambox);
  • the content experience within serious games, game-based learning, gamification, and simulation-based learning;
  • self-publishing with the option of low-cost editing and marketing (unbundled resources for authors and editors);
  • grass-roots digital content curation that organizes current resources for easier consumption (e.g.;
  • peer-to-peer content sharing and distribution (wikis, blogs, podcasts, Google Docs, Dropbox, etc.);
  • growing public confidence in content from sources that did not go through the traditional editing process;
  • transmedia migration;
  • open courseware;
  • and open courses.

Many informed educational publishers need not worry about any of these trends, as the leaders are already exploring, using and/or considering the implications of everything on this list. In fact, several have brilliantly honed in on a few and started to integrate them into their products, services, platforms and communities. The wise publishers also take heed of Henry Jenkins work, not to mention the important lessons of the current transformational impact of blended learning. With regard to Jenkins’s work, I’m referring to his idea of Convergence Culture, the concept that new media do not completely replace all old media as must as old and new converge.  In terms of blended learning, I’m pointing to the convergence of the digital and the physical and not thinking of them in either/or terms.

There are promising opportunities for publishers that embrace and leverage any or all of these (albeit some are quite divergent from traditional business practice).  This requires the humility, willingness and effort to revisit certain organizational values, internal policies and processes, as well as reconsidering how they think about, share, protect, and/or use “resources.”  With all of this stated, companies tend to navigate changes, even ones as rapid and transformational as the ones listed above, as long as they remain excellent at discovering the greatest needs and problems of their client base, and investing the most resources in developing agile products and services that genuinely meet those needs and address those problems.  Of course, this also includes looking a few years into the future, getting good at some predictions about the coming needs, and this can be a challenging part of serving a Wild West sector like education.

One of the greatest risks is the publisher that underestimates what I believe to be the disruptive innovation of open source, grassroots digital content collaboration, and self-publishing.  Dismissing these as of inferior quality is the classic response of a company that is getting ready to be disrupted.  After all, the idea of a disruptive innovation, as noted by Christiansen, is that it starts by providing an inferior product to an audience that is not served or poorly served by others in the industry.  Self-published products may seem crude to publishers (just as some cringe or scoff at the typos that show up in a largely unedited source like this blog), and yet they serve a significant and growing population.  For example, I will have more people read this blog post in a week than the total sum of people who read most of the articles that I’ve published in more traditional sources.  I just met an early childhood educator who has 500,000 vistors to her web site every week!  While there will remain an important role for more carefully edited and professionally produced content and educational resources, I can’t help but think that there are amazing and needed roles for publishers to fill within the world of open source, grassroots collaboration, and self-publishing.

What are your thoughts about the future of educational publishing?  Feel free to share in the comment area or via one of my social media extensions to the blog (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).

The Power of Connections in the Digital World: Toward a Literacy of Connectivity?

“Collaboration across Networks.”  That is the second of Tony Wagner’s Seven Survival Skills as described in his 2010 book, Bridging the Global Achievement Gap. As I understand Wagner’s description of that skill, it focuses upon working with people across time zones and distances in order to accomplish a common goal.  The need for such a skill is often justified by pointing out the nature of work in many global businesses, needing to work with people who are dispersed around the world.  Note that this skill is largely described in terms of collaborating with people who you already know or with whom you have some sort of pre-existing connection.

There is another important part to this conversation that focuses upon creating new connections with people that we do not already know, with resources that were formerly unfamiliar to us, and with new and diverse communities and contexts.  This is where connectivism, which I often mention on my blog, has something to teach us about life and learning in the digital age.  While I am not certain that it is a survival skill, learning to connect with new, diverse and dispersed people and ideas is a valuable literacy for this age.  Like any literacy, it gives one access to new conversations, allows one to consider and imagine new possibilities, and it provides one with opportunities that would not otherwise exist.

If I can’t read, there is only so much that I can get out of a book.  I can use it as a paper weight or to swat a fly, but I unless I am literate, I am unable to use the words in it to learn, imagine, or connect with new ideas and possibilities.  The same is true when it comes to cultivating the literacy of connectivity.  This is more than the state of being connected to others and the Internet using a variety of current and emerging technologies.  It also entails coming to understand and leverage various social, psychological, cultural and sociological aspects of connecting with other people, communities and resources.  It involves developing personal and or professional relationships with people on social networks, microblogs, and online communities; and maintaining these connections as one simultaneously navigates online and offline life.  It also involves designing and continually redesigning connections with a wide array of people and things as a way of pursuing our personal goals and aspirations. It is a literacy of connectivity that allows one to discover and use increasingly sophisticated answers to the following questions.

  • How do I leverage the digital world to raise funds for a new project or business?
  • How do I connect with people and resources that help me explore and resolve problems and challenges in your work and life?
  • How do I build a professional network that provides me with new ideas for my current work or even to explore new employment possibilities down the road?
  • How do I connect with people and groups that have a common passion or interest and enjoy sharing and exploring with one another?
  • How do I leverage collective knowledge from around the world to tackle a social problem that is important to me?
  • What are the most effective ways to share my ideas and expertise with people who are dispersed around the world, to get their feedback, and to refine my ideas based upon this feedback?
  • How do I meet new people online for personal or professional goals in mind?
  • How do I select and manage connections when there are billions of potential connections available to me?
  • How do I decide when and if to disconnect with some people, communities or resources?
  • How do I leverage the digital world to learn, grow, develop, and help others learn?

These are questions that challenge us to think about what it means to cultivate a literacy of connectivity.  What I am writing here is not new.  This is largely informed by the study digital literacy, the connected learning movement, new literacy studies, the work on connectivism, as well as no small influence from Howard Rheingold’s contributions to the literacy of cooperation.   I’ve been hesitant to use the word literacy in this context, as some argue that we have begun to overuse the term.  Yet, I find myself returning to the contemporary understanding of literacy as a social practice that involves meaning making.  it is more than just a static set of discrete skills.  What I am referring to here is looking at connectivity as a social practice in which one constructs knowledge through the connections that one makes and severs. In that sense, this is a literacy of connectivity.



If you can’t read it, then it can’t influence you = false

If you can’t read it, then it can’t influence you.  That may be true with words and books, but it is not true in a world of images, music and multimedia.  With a book, if you can’t decipher the meaning of the words, then the influence is indeed limited.  When you look at an image or watch a video, it can influence you without your ability to fully “read” it.  Without any formal training, practice, or instruction, an infant can look at a picture and have an emotional reaction.  As we grow up, we continue to be moved and influenced by visuals and media in a similar way. For many, they go through much or all of school with little or no introduction to the grammar of visual and multimedia messages.  They can graduate high school or even college with a visual or media literacy that is essentially a first or second grade reading level.  They may even go throughout their entire lives functioning at that visual and media literacy level.  This is changing in some schools and districts as standards are beginning to include references to these new literacies.  However, there is another challenge.  The teachers who are expected model and teach media literacy across the curriculum lack the background as well.

What are the implications for a limited visual and media literacy?  We can be influenced, but not fully understand why or how.  We do not develop the capacity to “write” visual and multimedia messages, limiting our potential voice and influence in many contexts where images dominate or are the language of choice. We are influenced by messages about politics, science, religion, and healthcare without an ability to analyze and evaluate them.

For these and many other reasons, it is time to give visual and media literacy greater attention in education.  If you are like me, you may see a need to nurture your own media literacy.  Here are ten resources to get you started.

  1. National Association for Media Literacy Education
  2. Association for Media Literacy
  3. 5 Great Media Literacy Programs
  4. The Journal of Media Literacy Education
  5. International Visual Literacy Association
  7. Center for Media Literacy
  8. The University of Rhode Island Media Literacy Lab
  9. The Teacher’s Guide to Media Literacy (book)
  10. Media and Information Literacy Clearinghouse