Does Reading on Computer Screens Affect Student Learning? (CHE)

JUNE 22, 2016

Seven years ago Naomi S. Baron walked past her campus bookstore, noticed a sign advertising digital-textbook rentals, and started to worry.

Ms. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World, studies the knotted relationship between technology and language. To her, the sign was a harbinger. It foretold a world where students would absorb less from the readings they did on the campus, as they temporarily interacted with texts online before casting them off and never returning.

The mind-set with reading on a computer or tablet screen, says Ms. Baron, becomes “I’m studying for a test, and this piece of text is not going to become a part of who I am.”

Ms. Baron is not the only professor worried about how reading on screens affects student learning. The question was submitted by a Chronicle reader in our recent call to suggest a topic we should investigate, and it received the most votes from other readers.

The question was sent in by Michelle Blake, an adjunct professor of English at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Ms. Blake became curious about the subject after she noticed that her students’ eyes seemed to glide over obvious errors in their papers while reading aloud. She wondered how the web affected students’ ability to engage with texts.

In search of an answer, we talked to several professors both about their research on the issue and their interactions with students. So far the major research findings on the topic are mixed, but scholars we spoke to agreed that how students digest knowledge in a digital world is unlike how they have ever done it before.

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About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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