The power of print in a digital world

Story highlights

  • Digital education has its benefits, but so does learning in print
  • Researchers found digital reading may be faster but comprehension may be lower

Patricia Alexander is professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. Lauren Singer is a Ph.D. candidate in educational psychology at the University of Maryland. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

(CNN)Today's students see themselves as digital natives, the first generation to grow up surrounded by technology like smartphones, tablets and e-readers.

Teachers, parents and policymakers certainly acknowledge the growing influence of technology and have responded in kind. We've seen more investment in classroom technologies, with students now equipped with school-issued iPads and access to e-textbooks. In 2009, California passed a law requiring that all college textbooks be available in electronic form by 2020; in 2011, Florida lawmakers passed legislation requiring public schools to convert their textbooks to digital versions.
Many students work digitally now, but some say there are benefits to old-fashioned print.
Given this trend, teachers, students, parents and policymakers might assume that students' familiarity and preference for technology translates into better learning outcomes. But we've found that's not necessarily true.
    As researchers in learning and text comprehension, our recent work has focused on the differences between reading print and digital media. While new forms of classroom technology like digital textbooks are more accessible and portable, it would be wrong to assume that students will automatically be better served by digital reading simply because they prefer it.

    Speed -- at a cost

    Our work has revealed a significant discrepancy. Students said they preferred and performed better when reading on screens. But their actual performance tended to suffer.
    For example, from our review of research done since 1992, we found that students were able to better comprehend information in print for texts that were more than a page in length. This appears to be related to the disruptive effect that scrolling has on comprehension. We were also surprised to learn that few researchers tested different levels of comprehension or documented reading time in their studies of printed and digital texts.
    To explore these patterns further, we conducted three studies that explored college students' ability to comprehend information on paper and from screens.