Are Digital Books Harder to Understand?


I was born into the tribe of people who carried backpacks full of books everywhere we went. We are the ones who are always reading two or three different books, plus we’re usually studying some issue that might require a major reference book. When laptops came along, that only added to the weight we bore on our backs everywhere we went.

This is how I went through school, undergraduate, and then law school. Even when I wasn’t in school, I lived in fear of ending up somewhere with a few extra minutes and no book to read. Or not having the right book.

Then came the ebook. I went through a couple versions of Nook and Kindle, and now use a tablet. I could carry 50 or a hundred of these books around in a much lighter backpack. Of course I also needed a couple old-fashioned print books because, well, I just did.

Educators have embraced ebooks for a number of reasons, including the enhanced multi-media elements they can bring to books. But a new study suggests that ebook readers may understand less of what they read than consumers of traditional books.

The study has been covered in EdWeek, the American Education Research Association, and the New York Times. While the headlines sound alarming, a closer look at what is actually being said is less so. The real issue seems to be one of distraction. The ebooks tested were created with tools that allowed for a lot of multi-media elements. According to an NBC News report on the study:

What the Schugars found is that e-books can, at worst, result in far lower reading comprehension as kids skip whole pages in search of noise-making character illustrations, interactive passages and other distractions.

Other studies have shown that some enhancements can make text more engaging and actually increase comprehension. So maybe the problem is that we have all these great new tools, but we haven’t yet learned when not to use them. Perhaps it is like when, say, Geocities and MySpace allowed users to customize web pages in every bad way imaginable. Or when people could suddenly take pictures of their food and apply a whole range of filters.

It could also be that reading a book is sort of like watching a movie in a theater. It’s just you and the screen. An e-reader, especially if it has Internet access, is more like watching the same movie on your laptop while you’re talking with friends on your cellphone.

I believe that we are just now learning how to make good ebooks, what to put in and what to leave out. We also are just at the beginning of the learning curve when it comes to reading the books on our devices.

Another study, this one from Harris Interactive, suggests that people who read ebooks regularly are heavier readers overall:

 About a third of those who read ebooks exclusively or more than print read more than 20 books a year, while about a fifth of those who read more in print read more than 20 books a year.

It seems clear that ebooks offer a lot of advantages, and will become more and more part of our learning experience at all educational levels. Hopefully we will become better at making good ones that keep the focus on the content, and we will continue to learn to be better readers.