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Why you might want to ditch your e-reader and go back to printed books

Why you might want to ditch your e-reader and go back to printed books

Interesting article By Caitlin Dewey printed in The Washington Post 21 August 2014

If you’re one of those Luddites who still clings, technophobically, to the printed page, then a team of European researchers has some good news for you:

You have again been vindicated.

This latest study on the differences between e-readers and printed books — which was presented at an Italian conference last month and reported this week in Britain’s Guardian newspapaer — asked 50 people to read a short story and take a comprehension test afterwards. Half the readers got the story on a Kindle; the other half got paperbacks; everybody got the same story. But when it came to the test, results diverged: The Kindle readers, it turned out, were far worse at remembering the story’s plot than were the print readers.

To be clear, this isn’t reason to chuck your Kindle (or Nook or iPad) forever. After all, the study only included 50 participants — and of the 50, only two were experienced Kindle-users. But regardless of those methodological quibbles, the results add to a growing pile of evidence on how new technology affects the way we read.

The short answer, for you distracted digital souls: It’s not good.

We already know, for instance, that people tend to comprehend less — and remember less — when they read books or textbooks on their computers or iPads, versus on a printed page.

On the open Web, it gets even more complicated. Readers here tend to skim around and look for keywords, rather than proceed linearly. In fact, according to eye-tracking research and Web analytics, the majority of the people who clicked onto this page will never make it to this sentence. (A Slate investigation into the issue last summer found that most readers scroll down to only 60 percent of an article page.)

That could port over to print reading too, neuroscientists worry: A number have documented, anecdotally and in their research, cases of readers who can no longer absorb classic literature or dense, complicated prose because of the habits they’ve developed on a screen. Those habits are, needless to say, spreading.

While the vast majority of Americans still read their books in print, that line is trending downward: A 2013 Pew report found that, from 2011 to 2012, the number of people who read e-books grew by seven percentage points — while the number of people who read printed books fell by five percentage points.

That trend is playing out in schools, as well: This September, 30,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District will begin their second year with personal, school-supplied iPads (… an initiative that cost the district $50 million). Elsewhere in the country, schools are handing out “educational tablets” and e-readers preloaded with learning software and digital textbooks.

“We don’t have people coming in, saying, ‘I can’t believe you took this textbook away from me. I can’t teach anymore,’ ” Patrick Larkin, the principal of an iPad-equipped school district, told Businessweek last year.

Teachers can still teach, sure — but it’s unclear whether students, or even much older readers, can still learn. Anne Mangen, the lead author of the new Kindle study, says more research will be needed to determine which devices should be used for what content and which populations benefit from each. It’s also unclear to what extent readers’ own attitudes affect their comprehension; one line of research posits that, as iPads and Kindles become more mainstream, people will approach text on those devices a little more thoughtfully.

In the immediate future, however, concerned readers have only one real option: turn off that Kindle and read more books in print. When all is said and read, that might not be a bad thing.

(Pew Research Center)

Damaging effect of an overweight backpack

Article in ‘The Journal’ 5 August 2014 – Christine Mills

Has nothing changed after all these years……… 

I WAS AGHAST at the weight of books involved. When I took the delivery box of a five-kilo box, I was shocked when I realised that there was still more to come. At around that time, the excessive weight of school pupils’ bags surfaced in the letters page of the Irish Times. However, the topic sank without trace, prompting me to wonder whether TDs (or indeed journalists for that matter) have school age children.

Perhaps their kids don’t travel with heavy bags by public transport, foot or bike. Perish the thought that members of the Oireachtas lack interest in the day-to-day concerns of us ordinary mortals.

After the daily struggle of loading our daughter up like the proverbial packhorse, I did a little research into the school bag issue. A Working Party set up in 1997 by the Minister for Education and Science Micheál Martin TD had investigated the matter. I was wearily unsurprised that the subsequent report changed nothing. The backs of the nation’s children have continued to bend under hefty bags since then. Now if they had only taken a Ryanair zero tolerance approach, things might look a little different. I jest, but something meaningful does need to be done.

The technology panacea 

The writers of the 1998 report naively declared that information technology will solve many of the factors leading to heavy school bags. The report speculates that all of this educational integration ‘may have some impact on the subject of this report in the medium to long term’ without saying exactly how long ‘medium’ and ‘long term’ are.

The vagueness of the word ‘may’ is classic working party fudge and sounds more desperate than hopeful. Sixteen years after the report expounding its cheery theory about technology relieving the burden of paper carrying, kids still often lug more than the recommended ten percent of body weight. I have heard anecdotes about children literally keeling over under the weight of books. (This is only funny if your children are cartoon characters or they have body doubles for the school run.)

A major initiative called ‘Schools IT 2000’ was set up to integrate information and communication technologies into education. Several years down the line, having literally weighed the evidence, I do not see that this initiative has reduced the school bag weight by so much as a nanogram. It’s about time someone did something about the excess baggage on board.

Educational publishers 

The writers of the report go on to address other possible solutions than IT, including collaboration between teachers and educational publishers. The sting in the tale seems to be that many people have known for years that schoolchildren are potentially suffering damage to their backs, but there is not enough will to find an effective solution. The Minister of Education, schools, publishers and parents could work out a way of lessening the burden.

According to the findings of the 1998 report, there will be a brave new world where children’s school bags are as light as feathers as ‘computer workstations, with networking facilities and multi-user capacity will complement “chalk and talk” in interactive learning’. A technological revolution has not replaced those sets of heavy textbooks. Some schools have tried to go down the ipad route but that brings a different set of problems. Whether this involves less reliance on workbooks by teachers, overhauling textbook production or the school co-ordinating homework and timetables more efficiently, then surely after all this time something could be done.

Hoping that technology will provide all the answers hasn’t got us very far and children are still storing up back problems for the future. Many parents will resort to buying two sets of schoolbooks to relieve the burden, which only lines the educational publishers’ pockets.

Christine Mills works in Dublin as a bookseller and blogs about books at Tales From the Landing Bookshelves and also jointly runs a craft blog called Curiously, Creative. She contributes to the members blog at and writes about her cultural activities for Irish News ReviewBook and cultural related tweets at @landing_tales

New Technologies – A Brain-Changer?

Interesting article by Baroness Susan Greenfield on how digital technologies affect the brain and who we are.

The New Technologies—a Brain-Changer?


April 2, 2012

Barbara Rich, Vice President of Communications at the Dana Foundation, interviews Baroness Susan Greenfield, an Oxford University Professor of Pharmacology and a member of the European Dana Alliance for the Brain, who reflects on the potential of how new digital technologies affect who we are.

Greenfield - thumbnail

 You have been raising your concerns about the influence of digital media on the brains and behaviors of children, including your remarks before the House of Lords.  What do you see as the three most critical issues in this arena?

A: There are many positives already documented for cognitive skills, such as higher IQ and improved short term memory, as well as improved sensory-motor coordination. However, these findings are not surprising as we know the brain becomes good at what it rehearses. My concern is more that the large amount of time spent by many in front of a screen inevitably will mean that there is less time spent in the three-dimensional worlds of five senses. Even today in the British news there was a report that children are rapidly losing touch with nature.  The three broad areas where I have concern would be (1) the impact of gaming on issues, such as risk taking addiction and attentional problems; (2) the impact of social networking sites on interpersonal relationships and notions of identity; and (3) the impact of search engines on information processing vs. understanding and real knowledge.

Q: Can we truly fully understand the influence of digital media on these critical areas (above) and on society as a whole without long-range epidemiological studies?

A: This question raises clear parallels with the situation in the 1950’s with possible links with smoking and lung cancer. It was only after long-term epidemiological studies by the likes of Sir Richard Dull that the causal relationship was established. We may be in a similar situation in linking the impact of screen technologies with increases in problems, such as attentional disorders and decline in empathy as published recently by Michigan State University in a study of 1,400 students. The problem is even more complex when it comes to the brain since it is always hard to establish a cause or a link in a correlation.

For example, this was illustrated in a recent study by Kuhn et al. (2011), where there was an enhanced ventral striatum in the brains of children playing computer games excessively. It was a point of discussion whether they were born with such brains which predispose them to playing games or whether the playing of the games had induced enlarging of this brain area. Obviously, the more epidemiological studies that could be set in train the better. On the other hand, as we all know, it is very rare that any one scientific study is viewed universally as conclusive. It is far more likely any finding will inevitably raise further questions and debate. We cannot really wait for a whole generation to serve as guinea pigs whilst we await some definitive conclusion.

Q: In what ways do you think these new technologies differ in their impact from society’s adaptation of technologies we now all take for granted—such as television?

A: I remember when television was first introduced into the home. It became a part of the culture in our family life just as the Victorians used the piano 100 years earlier. The issue is not so much the technology itself but the degree to which it is used, and the extent to which it displaces other activities. All other technologies have been a means to an end, for example keeping food cold or travelling further or faster. My concern now is that the cyber culture has become an end in itself. Only recently the co-founder of Twitter, Biz Stone, expressed his concern that the technology he himself had developed was being misused obsessively, beyond the benefits for normal life that he had intended.

Q: You have been very active in fostering the recruitment of women in the sciences. Have you seen much improvement in that area since you authored a 2002 report for the Department of Trade and Industry, “SET Fair: On the Recruitment and Retention of Women in Science”?

A: Sadly, no, the main problem as always comes down to money. I fear that the biggest problem, among those that we identified in the report, was how to level the playing field for women scientists in their late 20’s who did not have tenure but wished to start a family. This situation inevitably means that just at the time when they’re establishing recognition as a post-doctoral scientist, they have the invidious choice of putting their career on hold for several years and then returning in a junior capacity because they will not have a competitive publication record. Alternatively, they may decide not to have children at all or need to delay the prospect until they are more secure professionally, yet beyond the biological optimum. Men do not face these choices. Only by developing ring-fenced fellowship schemes for those who have had time off for child care (and this of course may occasionally include men,) will we be able to deal with this inequality.

Q: You have been a strong supporter of the importance of increasing the public understanding of science. Yet, often your comments have been considered controversial. How do you handle that? And what advice can you give to young scientists who might hesitate to speak with the media?

A: It would be very rare for any new idea not to attract controversy! So long as the criticisms are based objectively on the science, then it is very appropriate that any proposition is refined against the checks and balances of debate and discussion. The difficulty lies when the criticisms become personal, not least since such an approach is intellectually impoverished. In such cases, it could be seen as a last resort by those, again taking things personally themselves, and feeling their culture/lifestyle is threatened. Regarding advice to young scientists, I would urge them to engage with the media as much as possible. It may seem difficult at first that compared to the agenda of peer reviewed science that of the media seems overly simplistic and aimed sometimes at sensationalism. However only by explaining the real issues involved will scientists ever be able to influence the bulk of society, including policy makers. Rather than shy away from the clashes between the different cultures of science and media, we should be trying to build bridges.

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