Over the last two decades, technology has become part of almost every facet of our lives. The expansion of broadband, smartphones and portable technology has changed how we communicate, access information, work and learn.
While many of these changes are positive, there is growing evidence that this isn’t always the case. In recent years, there has been a gradual shift away from paper-based learning materials in schools toward digital and online tools. This shift accelerated rapidly during the pandemic when almost all schools moved lessons online. Research has shown that this increasing reliance on digital methods and resources may be negatively affecting the ability of students to learn and remember information. There is also growing concern about the impact of digital technology on mental and physical health.
Digital Vs. Paper-Based Materials: Learning
A 2018 meta analysis examined 54 studies involving more than 171,000 readers that compared reading from digital text with reading from printed text. The analysis found that comprehension was better overall when people read printed as opposed to digital texts.
Similarly, a study involving millions of high school students in the 36 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found that those who use computers heavily at school “do a lot worse in most learning outcomes, even after accounting for social background and student demographics.” Another analysis revealed that fourth-grade students (approximately 9 to 10 years old) “who used tablets in all or almost all their classes had, on average, reading scores 14 points lower than those who never used them—a differential equivalent to an entire grade level.”
Patricia Alexander, a psychologist at the University of Maryland who studies how we learn, discovered that although students think they learn more reading online, tests show that they actually learn less than when reading print. Part of the problem can be attributed to the speed with which we typically read text on a screen, much of which is easy-to-understand text messages or social-media posts. When it comes to reading more complex information on screen, which requires more attention and thought, people still tend to scan it rather than read it properly.
As well as encouraging us to read quickly, reading online usually involves scrolling, which can make it hard for the brain to create mental maps that help us to remember. When reading a printed book, for example, it’s easy to know roughly which page you’re on, but that’s far more difficult when scrolling through text on a screen. A 2019 study revealed that it’s not just when scrolling that the brain struggles to make mental maps. When a group of 50 participants was asked to read a 28-page story, half of them read a printed version and the other half read the story on an e-reader. Those reading the printed version understood the chronology of the plot better than those reading the digital version. The researchers suggest that “the haptic and tactile feedback of an e-reader does not provide the same support for mental reconstruction of a story as a print book does.”
The benefits of paper-based learning materials aren’t restricted to reading; writing on paper rather than typing on a keyboard can also produce better results. A 2014 study compared the outcome of students taking lecture notes by hand with those who took notes on a laptop. When it came to testing the students on their knowledge of the information, they were allowed to review their notes for 10 minutes before the test. Those who took longhand notes performed better on both factual and conceptual questions.
The authors of the study concluded that “laptop use can negatively affect performance on educational assessments, even — or perhaps especially — when the computer is used for its intended function of easier note taking. For that reason, laptop use in classrooms should be viewed with a healthy dose of caution; despite their growing popularity, laptops may be doing more harm in classrooms than good.”
Perhaps one of the most noticeable differences between reading printed matter compared to reading on a screen is distraction. When reading from a screen, we’re more often than not connected to other services, which bring with them pop-ups and pings from social media, emails and text messages, all of which divert our attention and break concentration. Even in schools, depending on the school’s policy, this can be an issue, particularly when tech-savvy students know how to bypass firewalls and other restrictions.
Digital Vs. Paper-Based Materials: Mental and Physical Health
There is growing concern about the impact of digital devices on mental health, including increased rates of anxiety and depression. With devices now being used by students in school as well as outside the classroom, there is little respite from the constant stimulation they deliver. Paper-based learning materials, in addition to providing cognitive benefits, also provide a much-needed break from the digital world.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that students who used paper-based planners were less likely to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who used digital planners. Published in 2017, the study involved 264 undergraduate students who were randomly assigned to use either a paper-based planner or a digital planner. The researchers found that the students who used the paper-based planner reported lower levels of anxiety and depression than those who used the digital planner.
The negative effect of digital devices isn’t limited to their use during the day. The blue light these devices emit also affects how well we sleep. A study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that those who read from a tablet took longer to fall asleep, had less REM sleep, and felt less rested in the morning than those who read from a paper book.
Poor sleep quality can bring with it a range of negative health consequences. In addition to the effect poor sleep has on mental well-being, it also increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
Compared to centuries of paper use, digital and online educational tools are very much in their infancy, with much research still to be done on their impacts. A growing body of research suggests that a switch to electronic learning materials from paper-based materials may be detrimental to students’ ability to learn and remember information, as well as to their overall health and well-being. With healthy, well-educated students as the ultimate goal, perhaps we should slow or even pause the shift to digital materials in schools until we more fully understand their effects on learning and literacy.
The Book Manufacturers Institute (BMI) recently commissioned well-known pollster Frank Luntz to find out how parents view the effectiveness of various learning materials, including books, textbooks and workbooks. The most definitive conclusion was that virtually every parent wants physical materials as part of student learning. 85% of parents want physical books in some form, and 88% think they are important and essential learning tools.
In summarizing the study results, Luntz said, “With parents keenly aware of the shortcomings of online learning thanks to the pandemic, this finding is only surprising in its intensity and uniformity. Every demographic and geographic subgroup agrees: printed materials are essential to student learning.”
In the survey of 1,000 parents of K-12 school children across America, the results could not be more conclusive. Parents are deeply focused on what their children learn and, just as important, how they learn it: by a 69% to 31% margin, parents chose physical over online materials when given the option.
In every possible measurement, parents believe physical books will outperform online. From testing results to successful learning, from knowledge retention to focusing on the subject, parents simply believe the physical book is the superior teaching tool.
The survey showed that frustrations with online learning during COVID are real. More than 80% of parents from all backgrounds (including 74% of those who typically favor online materials) believe printed materials would have made their jobs helping their students learn from home easier.
“Parents are more engaged with their children’s education, and they want the help only physical books, textbooks and workbooks can provide,” Luntz said.
Parents cited distractions that students encounter with online materials, such as the ease of surfing the internet during instruction, as the No. 1 concern in moving away from physical printed materials. It’s why parents believe their kids will comprehend better using physical books and why over 70% of parents would prefer their kids hold a book rather than a tablet.
In addition to commissioning the national poll, BMI asked Dr. Naomi Baron, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at American University, to write a whitepaper that summarizes the scientific research around reading print versus digital and how each impacts learning. Dr. Baron explains, “An abundance of research now substantiates that yes, medium matters for learning. While both print and digital have roles to play, the evidence demonstrates the continuing importance of print for sustained, mindful reading, which is critical to the educational process.”
For complete survey results, visit the BMI website.
CHICAGO – May 25, 2021 – Print media has seen significant disruption during the coronavirus pandemic, with lockdowns changing the way we access and consume news and information. But even as familiarity with and use of online media has increased, print on paper remains a widely used and highly valued resource. This according to a new survey, “Paper’s Place in a Post-Pandemic World,” commissioned by non-profit organization Two Sides North America and conducted by global research firm Toluna.
“Print and digital communications are often compared as an either/or proposition to suggest one is better than the other,” says Two Sides North America President Kathi Rowzie, “but our research shows that both play an important part in today’s information-driven economy. Rather than adopt a one-size-fits all digital communications strategy, savvy news organizations and other businesses will continue to offer consumers a choice and in doing so, help to assure that those who are unwilling or unable to access digital information are not disadvantaged.”
As a result of pandemic-related lockdowns, traditional news brands have successfully developed or enhanced their digital platforms, leading many to turn to online media as a primary source of news and information. But it cannot be assumed that everyone who moved online for news did so by choice or that all who moved online will remain there as restrictions on work, travel and leisure are lifted. While the Two Sides survey showed that 58% of consumers intend to read more news online in the future, this percentage has not changed since 2019. And although print newspaper readership has taken a hit during the pandemic, 49% of consumers say they would be concerned if printed news were to disappear.
It’s important to note that for many Americans, printed communication is not a choice – it’s a necessity. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission estimates that some 21 million Americans do not have access to broadband internet service,1 but other organizations, including Microsoft,2 report estimates as high as 157 million. In addition, many who have access to internet service cannot afford it. Consumers in rural areas without broadband infrastructure and many among our most vulnerable populations – older Americans, those with disabilities and low-income individuals – depend solely on printed newspapers, magazines, books, bills and statements.
In addition, digital communication is not universally welcomed. Nearly three in 10 consumers (29%) prefer to read newspapers in print, and that number jumps to more than four in 10 for those over age 55. 44% of consumers say they gain a better understanding of a story when reading news in print versus online. When it comes to magazines, 38% of consumers prefer to read in print, with percentages climbing to 49% for those over 55 and 63% for those over 65. When all age groups are included, 44% prefer to read books in print.
As might be expected, the survey shows that younger adults, those aged 18 to 24 in particular, prefer to read all types of media online. But even among these younger consumers, 28% prefer to receive and read personal information from doctors and hospitals in print, 27% prefer to read books in print and 23% prefer to receive bills and statements from service providers in print.
“It’s clear that digital communication is changing the way we receive news and information,” Rowzie says, “but Americans’ growing dependence on digital communication brings its own concerns, which in turn presents opportunities for print media to hold and potentially reclaim a bigger slice of the consumer media pie. Our survey reveals that 52% of consumers believe they spend too much time on their electronic devices, and just over half are concerned that the overuse of digital devices may be damaging their health. And as headlines about online security breaches become a common occurrence, 64% say they are increasingly concerned that their personal information held electronically is at risk of being hacked, stolen, lost or damaged.”
Consumers also are increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of their communication choices, but there are a lot of misconceptions in the marketplace about the sustainability of both digital communication and print on paper. “Our survey shows that 67% of consumers believe electronic communication is better for the environment that print on paper,” Rowzie says. “But the miniaturization of today’s electronic devices and the ‘invisible’ nature of digital infrastructure and cloud-based services cause many to vastly underestimate the environmental footprint of electronic communication, which includes the mining of raw materials like iron, copper and rare earth minerals to produce electronic devices, the massive amounts of predominately fossil fuel energy used to manufacture and operate those devices and the server farms that support them, and the enormous and growing amount of e-waste generated.
“Like all manufactured products, paper has an environmental footprint, too,” Rowzie explains. “But in the U.S., it is a material whose industry grows and regrows its own raw material (wood fiber from trees), derives two-thirds of the power to drive its processes from renewable, carbon-neutral biofuel, cleans and returns more than 90% of the water it uses to the environment and recycles more than 95% of the chemicals it uses to turn trees into pulp. In addition, with a 66% recovery rate, paper is the most recycled material in the country, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That’s a powerful sustainability story the electronics industry cannot match.”
For more facts about the environmental sustainability of print and paper products, visit https://twosidesna.org/two-sides-fact-sheet
About Two Sides North America, Inc.
Two Side North America is an independent, non-profit organization that promotes the sustainability of print, paper and paper-based packaging, and dispels common environmental misconceptions about paper products. We are part of the Two Sides global network which operates across North America, South America, Europe, Australia and South Africa.
Kathi Rowzie, President
Two Sides North America, Inc.
In a recent Wired article, “The Radical Transformation of the Textbook,” writer Brian Barrett reports that digital textbooks cost less than their physical counterparts, take up less space, and get more frequent updates. However, when it comes to retention and comprehension, traditional paper textbooks still produce better results for students. As the article points out, digital-only is not necessarily the best choice for many students. For example, the digital divide means that students in low-income and rural households may have less access to reliable internet and fewer connected devices. Digital-first textbooks may create challenges for these students.
According to the article: “We are finding that even though undergraduates prefer to read digitally, these preferences aren’t showing positive or even equalness in terms of the effect on comprehension,” says Lauren Singer Trakhman, a reading comprehension researcher at the University of Maryland’s Disciplined and Learning Research Laboratory.
Two Sides NA’s comprehensive fact sheets have also explored the growing body of research showing the critical role that print and paper plays in literacy and learning. For instance, studies that compare the efficiency and effectiveness of print vs. paperless reading find that print has key advantages to readers. Results show that they:
In addition, research on learning from paper vs. learning from screens reveal that although the current generation of students prefers new technology, nearly all students surveyed expressed a preference for paper, usually saying they felt they performed better when reading on paper rather than a screen. From learning to comprehension to retention—print and paper deliver proven benefits and continue to play an essential role in education and development.
For more the role print plays in learning and literacy, check out our fact sheet.
Read more in the Wired article: “The Radical Transformation of the Textbook”
 Christensen, 2013. http://sciencenordic.com/paper-beats-computer-screens
Recently there was a troubling story published on the BBC website: ‘Education publisher Pearson to phase out print textbooks.’ It’s troubling, not only for the print industry, but for millions of students, teachers, parents, and everyone that has an interest in the education and development of young people around the world.
The story is that Pearson, the world’s largest publisher of educational books, is moving towards being a ‘digital-first’ publisher. It will start to phase out print textbooks in favor of their digital versions, with students offered a digital subscription service to receive the latest, updated versions of the books.
“The history of this business is as a college textbook publisher, and over the last 20 years, like many of the other industries like newspapers and music publishing, we’ve seen a gradual shift from digital where over time digital has become a more important part of the offering,” said John Fallon, the CEO of Pearson. “We’ve really reached a tipping point.”
What this means for students and teachers is that there will be an immediate and significant decrease in the amount of new, updated textbooks available in print – from 500 to 100. Over a short space of time, the number of new books will go down to zero, forcing students online for the latest versions. Considering Pearson currently has over 1,500 titles in print, this is a dramatic and potentially disastrous move that could affect the entire education sector.
At Two Sides, we talk a lot about the benefits of print to consumers – the sustainability, the tactility, the sheer pleasure of turning the page. But print doesn’t just provide consumers with a pleasant reading and recycling experience, it plays a key role in the development and education of young people.
From a very early age, print has proven benefits in helping children to interact with a story, process the ideas and comprehend the characters and the story. In a 2013 study, researchers found that children between the ages of 3 and 5, whose parents read to them from an electronic book, had lower reading comprehension than children whose parents used traditional books. Part of the reason was that parents seemed to spend more time adjusting the device or pressing buttons than focusing on the story.
When the child then goes into education, there have been a number of studies that show that learning from a print book improves their understanding of a subject as well as factual retention and recall. As the child goes through the education system and the subjects become more complex, print has the advantage of being a ‘slow’ medium, allowing the student to progress at their own pace, free of distractions. And, of course, you can’t scrawl notes in the margins of a laptop.
However, the group most likely to be affected by the Pearson move are students in higher education, the young people that rely the most on up-to-date textbooks. Whatever course they’re taking, those in universities and colleges learn from a wide range of books, and it’s been proven that the vast majority prefer to learn from those books in print form.
A global study by Naomi Baron, a Professor of Linguistics at American University in Washington DC, asked over 300 university students in the US, Japan, Germany and Slovakia which media they preferred for ‘serious’ reading, and found that 92% of concentrate best in hard copy.
“There are two big issues with e-reading,” said Professor Baron. “The first was [the students] say they get distracted, pulled away to other things. The second had to do with eye strain and headaches and physical discomfort.”
“My major concern, as a person in higher education, is that we’re not listening. We’re assuming we’re being helpful by lowering price, by making it more convenient, by helping the environment, but we don’t bother asking our students what they think.”
The Pearson announcement has grave implications not only for students, but for the educational print industry. As the world’s largest publisher in education, Pearson has a huge influence over the sector, and other publishers, including those in fiction and non-fiction, will be looking closely at what happens over the next few years to decide whether to pursue a similar digital-first strategy.
For the moment, students have a healthy second-hand market to get their hands on print textbooks, but it won’t be long until the information in those books is out of date. In making the move away from print, Pearson are potentially damaging the education of millions of children and students around the world. And no amount of corporate cost-saving can justify that.
Article by Sam Upton
Photo credit: @zephyr_p – stock.adobe.com