Paper versus pixel


Some friends and I recently started a book club. The first title on the list: 1984. After all, if there was ever a year to be reading dystopian literature, this is it. But immediately after choosing the book, I faced another choice: paper or e-book? On the one hand, I want to support the nice man at the book store on the corner of the street. On the other, an e-book for 2.79 euros from Amazon? That's a no-brainer. Wouldn't you know it, science has something to say on the matter.

Multiple scientific studies indicate that reading comprehension and information retention are lower when you read from a screen. So says the man in the book store, who enthusiastically pulled out a Volkskrant article when I told him of my dilemma. The studies are all fairly simple: have half your test subjects read something on paper, sit the other half in front of an e-reader or computer screen; then test their reading comprehension by having them place items in the text in the right order, or by using multiple choice questions. Time and again, paper performs just as well as or better than pixels, never worse.

The research suggests that a weighty explanation for this difference is the tactile element paper provides. You can hold paper, leaf through it. You can insert your forefinger between two pages and look back over the text for something you read. You can underline paragraphs. All this physical interaction supposedly helps us remember important details.

I am not entirely convinced by this explanation. The arguments ‘against’ e-readers seem to be based mainly on the extremely poor quality of the typical reading experience on e-reader software at the present time. It is true: I cannot easily leaf back and forth in the PDF version of a fat tome of 1,500 pages on physics, but improve the software and this problem is easily solved. What's more, in a PDF you can underline things as you ordinarily would. Why is it that we only appreciate this if it is physical?

If there is any difference between paper and pixel, it must be small. We didn't all become dumber overnight because we started reading from a screen. But I do think that the ‘paper versus pixel’ dilemma reveals a greater problem: what's the right way to be dealing objectively with the lesson content and the teaching method? How often have we, without realizing it, replaced something in the classroom while the original was actually ‘better’?

Perhaps it does not matter that schoolchildren are learning their ABC (and students their calculus) on an iPad rather than from the pages of a book, but how can we avoid a future scenario in which we modify the curriculum and accidentally cause (for example) a significant rise in functional illiteracy? It would be crazy, of course, to set up a major longitudinal study for every little change. Saying that you are basing every change on science is all well and good until you realize that science doesn't have all the answers.

Ultimately, everything is a compromise, it's just that we don't always realize this. Perhaps reading comprehension really is worse on a screen, but nevertheless students are choosing their laptops over three books at two kilos apiece every time. Having the option to press Ctrl+F is also a nice extra. For me, the deciding factor was the fact that the book store didn't even have 1984 in stock. Guess I'll take the pixels.


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