Rethinking the Tablet for Books Argument

I have been following the recent debate that has emerged concerning the replacement of textbooks at 2nd level with digital devices. This is a growing trend with many 2nd level schools, particularly for the Junior Cycle. Parents at a Co Meath secondary school recently raised their concerns regarding replacing their children’s textbooks with an iPad. They believe that their children don’t learn as much or retain as much information when they learn from screens. They believe that they already spend enough time on digital devices, that the benefits to learning just aren’t to be seen and that they are able to study and learn better with physical books.

Emma O Kelly recently reported that the use of some technologies in the classroom could be hurting rather than helping learning, according to a growing body of research. She claims that international studies are questioning the practice of replacing hard copy schoolbooks with electronic tablets, a trend that appears to be on the increase in Ireland.

While no definitive statistics are available it is believed that between 10-15% of all 2nd level children are now using individual electronic devices as a primary learning tool in the classroom.

An expert in technical communication has warned, however, that simply replacing hard copy text books with technology may be damaging children’s ability to learn. Dr Ann Marcus-Quinn, a lecturer in Technical Communication and Instructional Design at the University of Limerick, said international research shows that crucial skills such as the ability to empathise and critically analyse texts may be compromised by a shift to reading texts on tablets.

She said such a move replaces the deep reading process which the reader of a hard copy text experiences, with “skim” reading, where the reader looks out for key words and may believe that they are fully absorbing the text but in fact are not. “We may think we are processing the information in the same way,” she says “but in reality, our ability to empathise and critically analyse the text are all being compromised.”
She claims that while reading on tablets is suited to certain kinds of short texts and certain kinds of reading exercises, it does not deliver the level of immersion that leads to deep comprehension.

Citing ongoing studies led by Norwegian researchers, but involving academics in 30 countries, Dr Marcus- Quinn said it is vital that teachers are allowed to decide which blend of learning is most suited to their own students in their class.

Parents also have huge concerns relating to the cost of supplying their child with a digital device. It generally costs between €600 to €800 to purchase a tablet. Parents are obliged to purchase the device from one particular company, and cannot bring in an existing digital device.
The ongoing debate relating to replacing books with digital devices is not just confined to 2nd level. University of Limerick has recently begun teaching first year students how to take handwritten notes during lectures. The university wants to encourage students to write lecture notes rather than type them on laptops. Arts and Humanities librarian Pattie Punch said research indicates that when one is typing the brain is in “neutral’, whereas the effort of handwriting – where the brain and body must form the shapes of different letters – leads to a more active and more reflective kind of learning.

It looks like this debate will continue and that there may have to be a re-think of the merits of side-lining books completely for tablets at schools. This may be especially true in light of a recent Europe-wide research project which found that young “digital natives” were more likely to absorb information from printed books rather than screens even though they had grown up surrounded by digital devices. The analysis of how more than 170,000 people are learning across Europe finds that paper is the preferred reading medium for both children and young adults when reading novels and longer-form articles.

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