Should We Succumb to Students’ Aversion to the Printed Word?

Last week, Apple launched its iBooks 2 software. Apple was not the first company to create software for the development of multimedia etextbooks, but as usual, they created the biggest buzz. Naturally, their motives aren’t entirely altruistic; Apple wants a big piece of the etextbooks pie (now, there’s a metaphor that works overtime).

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...

I have seen demonstrations of multimedia etexts, and they are very impressive. Embedded photos can be quickly expanded to fill the page of your monitor or iPad; a flick of your fingers returns them to normal size. Three-dimensional images can be rotated in a similar fashion. You can watch videos also, and of course, audio is included. Note taking and highlighting are also easy to do.

There is no doubt in my mind that etextbooks are the way of the future. They simply amount to a better way of transmitting information than the old, stodgy paper books. And who wouldn’t rather carry a single iPad than a heavy load of textbooks?

Still, something gnaws at me. To hear the majority of my students tell it, the disappearance of printed text as we know it wouldn’t be a bad thing. Who needs novels? – we have movies. Biographies? – watch a documentary. Who wants to read when you can watch a screen?

Educators have been lamenting the decrease in reading by our youngsters since long before Apple was formed. I tell my students that I understand the phenomenon. It used to be that kids didn’t have much to do after the sun went down. Once they tired of drawing or playing checkers, reading a good book was their most entertaining option. But then radio was invented, and that took up a share of their time. Television was a big one. Now there are computers, video games, smart phones, etc., and they are all easy and fun. Who has the time to read a book? Only geeky bookworms seem to do very much of it.

However, practice does makes perfect, and only students who read regularly tend to make good readers. Many of my students have told me that they don’t want to read my blog because it’s all text (hey – what about those SpongeBob pictures?). Even my own son said he’d prefer video lessons, or at least animations.

I don’t want to sound old fashioned, and I’m certainly not anti-technology. But I believe that many animated or video lessons are inefficient. They have their place, when visual imagery is paramount. But students are forced to go at the pace of the video, and few of them will bother to rewind even if they should. Learning is very passive when one watches an animation; text is sometimes more effective, and writing material down for one’s self can be best of all. Yes, students like on-screen learning because it’s interesting, but they also like it because it lets them be lazy.

Some educators say “if technology makes learning fun, go with it, because students will use it more.” That’s certainly true, but I think a compromise is called for. Printed text is not going to disappear anytime soon, and if our students don’t have a facility with it, we’re going to be in big trouble. Electronic devices are fine, but educators should make sure that they encourage students to read plenty of printed text, whether on paper or screens.

That’s not an Earth-shattering proposal, but students’ reluctance to read (and write) is disturbing. We educators need to find ways to make reading enjoyable for our students.

English: A 1st generation Apple iPad showing i...

Fancy electronics alone won’t do that. We must find ways to make content compelling to today’s students. We need to find stories that reach today’s youth personally. Also, students might prefer short stories or novellas to full-length novels – that’s fine. As for textbooks, perhaps their writing style needs some spicing up. Old-school teachers might be horrified at the thought, but again, it’s worth it if it gets the kids to read more.

Now, I’m not saying that we should “de-professionalize” every textbook. What I am saying is that we need to find alternative strategies to reach students who are reluctant to read much. To be sure, we won’t succeed with every student. But such efforts could be implemented at all grade levels from elementary to high school. If we can succeed at rescuing a few percent of the non-readers in each grade, we’ll have many more competent readers and writers and more of them will go on to college.

We cannot let our children abandon the printed word. If we do, we abandon them.


2 comments on “Should We Succumb to Students’ Aversion to the Printed Word?

  1. Thank you for the wonderful post. It does in fact make a person wonder how much interactive is really enough? More importantly, what are we doing to students sense of creativity and imagination, if we keep teaching only with animations, pictures, and videos. This is not to say I believe there is no value in these things, I do; what I believe is that like anything students should have a pre-established opinion, idea, or even imaginative image conjured up by them first. If not then we are training students to have to use examples of what already exists at all times. Thinking outside the box for the creation and discovery of the greatest thoughts and inventions yet to come, starts with the imagination.

  2. Mark O'Neil says:

    I think you are right. We have to find engaging text for students not force our own opinions and choices on them.

    Just as the TV didn’t completely replace the radio and the automobile didn’t completely replace the bicycle, so tablets will not replace books. There is a place for both and there is a place for text in both media.

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