National Edition

Growing up digital: How digital screens are changing the way we read

Published: Tuesday, May 27 2014 4:00 a.m. MDT

Updated: Wednesday, May 28 2014 12:38 a.m. MDT

Norwegian researchers conducted a study among tenth-graders where students were quizzed on material some read in a book and some read in PDF form. The study found that the students who read from print scored “significantly better” than those who read digitally.

But digital literacy teacher John Jones balked at the study, saying in an online column that the screen differed greatly from that of an e-book. The interface allowed for students to look at only one page at a time in the same window where they had to answer questions. Jones said these students were limited by the type of technology they used rather than the fact that they were reading from an electronic document.

Children’s technology expert Warren Buckleitner says that in many ways, mobile technology is a blessing for parents, but the content is more important than the platform.

“A parent and child with an iPad is very powerful. They have a lot more options. That’s good because I’ll tell you, when you have a baby that’s teething, you want options,” Buckleitner said. “The biggest enemy right now is wasted time. It’s kind of like junk food. It might keep them quiet in the car, but they could be playing with something engaging, like animation."

Taylor also worries about overuse.

“Technology has evolved so quickly that we can only evaluate the effects in the rearview mirror,” Taylor said. “My single greatest concern with overuse of tech is opportunity cost. I’m not saying that kids shouldn’t be allowed to use tech, I’m saying it should be the exception, not the rule.”

More screen time at school

With as many as 33 states advocating in some way for mobile technology in classrooms as of 2007, the time kids spend staring at screens could increase even more.

Why are so many schools eager to put iPads in the hands of young kids?

Canadian game developer and tech guru Ryan Henson Creighton sums it up like this: Many schools are trying to fix problems in education by hitting it with “a big, technology-shaped stick.”

“It’s not about technology. You can teach a binary counting system without a computer in the room. And what do you need to be able to do that? A good teacher,” Creighton said. “[The iPad] is not a device for creating things. It’s a device for consuming things.”

Whether or not reading on a screen definitively impacts comprehension may still be open for discussion, but in the meantime, some schools that jumped on the one-to-one computing wagon early are not seeing overwhelming improvement.

A recent article by Mashable visited a Maine school district a decade after the state signed a $37 million contract with Apple that provided 36,000 laptops to students and teachers.

The 2001 proposal for the tech boost stated that the laptops would “prepare young people to thrive in a world that doesn’t exist yet.”

The results have been mixed due to a variety of problems. While there was program training available for teachers, none of the modules actually trained them how to use the software. Additional training was available on a web-based resource page.

A report released in 2008 by the Maine Education Policy Research Institute (MEPRI) credited the laptop program with greatly improving children’s writing proficiency; 29 percent of eighth-graders were writing at proficiency in 2000, wile 41 percent met the bar in 2005. But those numbers can be a little deceptive, since test scores improved overall — not necessrily as a result of the laptop program. Another study also published by MEPRI in 2011 depict a minimal difference in test scores between kids who took the test digitally and those who took it longhand format.

"The scale scores are almost identical," the study reads. "In other words, writing improved regardless of the writing test medium."

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