High-tech reading is low on meaning

March 2, 2001

Karen Murphy argues that text read on a computer screen can be less easy to understand than a traditional textbook.

On the surface, it would appear that technology is a blessing to educators and to students because it affords almost instantaneous access to a universe of information on any conceivable topic. With the click of a few keys, high-school students can explore Pompeii, walk the Great Wall of China, watch the weather unfold in their own neighbourhood or investigate Elizabethan England. College students no longer need to go to the library, instead they sit down in their dorm room or their flat and enter the world's virtual library - the worldwide web. More content can be downloaded from a computer disk than can be stored in even the most weighty school textbooks. Further, these disks come with animation and audio tracks that traditional books lack.

A 1998 report published by the United States Educational Testing Service revealed that 98 per cent of schools in the US own computers, and the current computer: student ratio of 1:10 is at an all-time high. Moreover, 64 per cent of US schools have access to the internet, up 50 per cent from 1995.

The various forms of hyper-media introduce totally new mechanisms of exposing students to educational texts. Moreover, in contrast to other forms of media (eg videotape or voice recording), it is possible that computer-based technologies may be more persuasive -better able to change a student's knowledge or beliefs -than traditional written texts.

To investigate whether students are more persuaded by online than by written texts, my research team and I devised a study in which 131 undergraduate students (64 males and 67 females) read two articles that had appeared in Time magazine. One discussed the pros and cons of doctor-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients and the other explored the failure of school integration in the United States. Both were judged by experts to be two-sided refutational texts. This type of text, which studies have shown to be the most persuasive, is one in which both sides of an argument are presented and one side is then refuted. Before reading the articles, the students were randomly assigned to three groups approximately equal in size. One group read the articles in their traditional text form and responded to questionnaires on paper. A second group read the articles in a computerised format from a webpage that we designed, and answered questionnaires on paper. The final group both read and answered the questionnaires in the computerised online format; no paper was used. The only difference between the paper and the computerised text was that the computerised one had been scanned into digital form and appeared on our webpage. The questionnaires administered to all three groups asked the same questions about knowledge and beliefs. The before-reading questionnaire and the after-reading one were similar, except that the latter included a series of questions about a student's perceptions of the text.

The survey revealed that all students increased their knowledge about the topics of the articles, and that their beliefs became more aligned with those of the writers of the articles than they were before reading. However, we did find differences in reaction according to a student's group.

Students in the first (paper-only) group found the texts much easier to understand than students who read the texts in computerised form, regardless of whether they responded to our questions on paper (the second group) or by computer (the third group). Students at college level most likely have a repertoire of strategies to comprehend and remember printed text, and it may be that they cannot transfer them to reading computerised text. Certainly, the literature on technology suggests that students require more sophisticated strategic processing abilities when attempting to read and comprehend hypertext: for example, locating strategies (ie situating oneself within the internet and navigating from one node to the next); accessing strategies (narrowing the pool of information, judging relevance and suitability of sites and using associated sources or supports); and application strategies (actual use of the information). But given that these two particular texts were in the form of connected discourse identical to the printed text, we expected students to employ the same strategies they would when reading printed text.

Also, the paper text was found to be more interesting than the computerised text. Given that the words, paragraphs and small photo were the same in all three groups, it would appear that the students found the computerised text less interesting simply because it was computerised.

It may be that the understandability of a text is the key to students' reactions to other aspects of it. When students encounter difficulty in understanding, it may influence how interesting they find a text to be. This link is by no means obvious, however: a challenging text may actually increase someone's interest in understanding it. Nonetheless, there is strong evidence from literacy research to suggest that students do not find interesting what they do not understand.

Another explanation may be the lower visual resolution of online materials compared with printed ones. We did not attempt to control for the lower resolution of computer screens compared with paper texts, though we accept that resolution is an issue in online reading. There are several online software packages (eg Microsoft e-books) that purport to provide a more eye-friendly medium for reading online materials. The role of resolution in online reading and comprehension is an important avenue for future research, but at present it is not well understood.

These results have implications for educational practice. Educators should pause and examine the alleged benefits of computers. Our study suggests that students find paper texts easier to understand and more convincing than computerised texts. If anything, computerised texts may present additional hurdles for less competent readers.

As for textbooks, many textbook publishers offer ancillary, web-based materials to be used in conjunction with traditional, paper-based textbooks. While these materials come in a variety of formats, many resemble the kind of materials we used in our study above. We would therefore expect that students would be able to understand their traditional textbook better than the ancillary materials. Thus there is little reason, from a learning standpoint, to replace traditional textbooks with present-day, computer-based textbooks, which may fall by the wayside, as has been the fate of other technologies that promised to change education, such as television and video. On the other hand, if we regard computers as merely a refined and expanded version of television with the capability for limited interaction, it would seem likely that traditional paper texts will one day be replaced by a more complex technology that allows the learner actually to interact with the text. However, I do not think we have reached this point, and for the moment educators should be critical of the promise of computer-based learning. Just because electronic books and online texts seem unique and seductive does not mean that they enhance student learning. While computer-based technologies may be able to bring the world to those who would not otherwise access this information, ease of access does not guarantee that effective learning or instruction has occurred.

P. Karen Murphy is assistant professor of educational psychology, Ohio State University, United States.

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