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July 27, 2023

Don’t fear the screen when it comes to learning

From an early age, more and more students are reading digitally—and that’s OK.

In the news

The printed page has had a good run—568 years—and it ain’t dead yet. But more and more reading takes place on digital media, and educators, among others, are trying to uncover the ramifications of the shift.

The good news is, cognitive scientists agree that due to the explosion of internet content, students probably read a greater volume of words now than they did a decade ago.

But if that reading is mostly done digitally, the news is not as good as it may first appear. Studies have found that 8- to 12-year-olds demonstrate stronger reading skills when they spend more time with printed, rather than digital, material. And as this MIT Technology Review piece notes, “Educators who are more dependent than ever on digital tech … often have little or no guidance on how to balance screens and paper books for beginning readers. … In a lot of ways, each teacher is winging it.”

Emerging research on education can, of course, be applied to adults. The question is how this information will impact the way children—and those in the workforce—learn.

The Cognizant take

The relationship between how we read material and how much we get out of it is surprisingly complex. Moreover, there are myriad aspects to the interplay between tech and education, and it’s easy to conflate issues.

At the moment, of course, many are up in arms regarding the ability of generative artificial intelligence to create a generation of cheaters. Students have argued that proctoring software is biased, and in a move many parents would doubtless applaud, an entire town in Ireland banned smartphones—in school and at home—for elementary students.

But if bouncing between paper books and digital devices causes problems for early readers, the most realistic solution is to get those young students reading online as soon, as much and as consistently as possible. This may seem heartless to those of us who fondly remember our Big Blue Storybook (Dick, Jane and Spot—what a bunch of cutups), but the long-term trend is for electronic reading to continue eating into hardcopy’s lead (despite that 568-year head start).

In the areas of higher education and business, digital reading is even more pervasive. The vast majority of corporate training materials are now delivered either online-only or with that option. Here, cost, production and delivery advantages far outweigh any issues around reading retention.

The world is moving inexorably toward digital-first reading, and education should acknowledge and adjust. This does not mean kids should be hurled online without preparation. Quite the contrary. We need to allow young minds to spend plenty of time offline—making connections, socializing and relaxing. But where reading is concerned, the priority should be to prepare them for the world they will inhabit.

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