with Meredith Broussard, a data journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia. Get this: she bans the use of e-books in her classes although she teaches courses in digital journalism (h/t to commenter Susan.) As Broussard explains on her syllabus:
You must bring a print copy of the texts to class. While I understand that e-books are convenient, and I enjoy reading them myself, our class depends on face-to-face interaction. Print is the absolute best interface for what we do in this class. The myriad interruptions and malfunctions of electronic readers tend to interfere with class conversation and distract you from being able to refer quickly to a passage in the text. So: read on whatever you like at home, but bring a book or a printout to class.
Why? It turns out that in her experience, our so-called “digital native” students don’t always plan ahead. (Surprise! Or not, for anyone accustomed to working with late adolescents and young adults.) Also, as I have argued here in the past, she notes that codex technology is unsurpassed for her teaching style and goals:
I really do believe that print is the ideal interface for a classroom. I used to allow e-readers in class. For a couple of semesters, I patiently endured students announcing their technical difficulties to the entire class: “Wait, I’m out of juice, I have to find a plug.” “What page is that on? My Kindle has different pages, so I can’t find the passage we’re talking about.” “Professor, do you have an iPad charging cord I could use?” After a while, I realized that I was spending an awful lot of class time doing tech support. The 2-minute interruptions were starting to add up. E-readers were a disruptive technology in the classroom—and not in a good way.
I went back to print. I required all the students to buy the same edition of the book. Now, when I say, “Please look at the passage on page 45,” everybody opens the book to page 45 and looks at the passage and we have a conversation without getting bogged down in technical glitches.
She further explains why e-books as they exist now might be fine for pleasure reading, but they’re still inferior for higher-level learning:
It’s important to remember that e-readers have only been around for a few years, so there are dozens of user interface issues that have not been worked out yet. For example: You can’t easily flip through an e-book. In education, this matters more than you think. Let’s say that you were reading a book for class, and you remember seeing something important in a paragraph that you sort of remember was on a page that also had a picture of a fish. You flip through the book, and you see the page, but it’s not a picture of a fish, it’s a picture of a whale. But you found the passage, and you read it again, and you remember it this time. This is how human memory works: You can have a vague sense of something that looked like something, and you go and find it based on what it looked like. It’s not perfect, but it’s effective. Millions of these not-necessarily-linear information-retrieval experiences add up to an education. In an e-book, I couldn’t flip, and I couldn’t search for the phrase “fish picture,” because the picture wasn’t actually a fish. The educational possibilities are limited by the physical realities of the interface.
By contrast, the user interface for a book has been refined for centuries. What we call a ‘printed book’ today is a codex, a set of uniformly sized pages bound between covers. It was adopted around the 3rd or 4th century. A book’s interface is nearly perfect. It is portable, it never runs out of power, and you can write notes in it if you forget your notebook. The physical book is seamlessly integrated into the educational experience: It fits on any desk, even those cramped little writing surfaces that flip up from the side of a seat. You can sit around a table with 15 other people, each of whom has a book, and you can all see each other to have a conversation about what is on the page. If a book breaks, you replace it. If you drop a book in the sink, you dry it out. Paper may even be a better platform for the cognitive task of learning, according to a study by Norwegian professor Anne Mangen. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,”Mangen told Scientific American last year.
This research, as well as the countless informal observations of non-super professors like me, suggest that books and printed material make it easier to learn, and that the currently crude interface of e-books makes it more difficult to learn. So I’m with Broussard: “I believe in using the right tool for the task. Printed books are often the most effective tools for education. Not all types of education, and not all subjects, sure. Just the type of education I do, which is based on people being in a room together and engaging with ideas collectively.” She concludes with some trenchant observations about the push for K-12 districts to switch to all e-books, noting that “acquiring knowledge is already hard, and how it becomes even harder for students when the knowledge is buried behind layers of unnecessary or poorly designed technological complexity.”
So far at Baa Ram U., the number of e-book users remains small and un-disruptive in class, so I won’t go so far as to ban e-books. But I think I’ll share her article with my students so that they’ll think about which reading formats facilitate their own learning. Perhaps this link will be useful for you and your students as well.
I’ve been on the road–stay tuned for a report on my recent travels! How’s your week going?
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