With the proliferation of cell phones, laptops, and other hand-held electronics, parents soon may be deciding whether they want their newborn to have a paper or paperless life. Choose electronics and their child will get a seventy-percent life.
In spite of some Kansas high schools bragging that they have gone paperless, and their students conduct all their schoolwork on laptops and palm pilots, this “revolution” is a case of the Emperor’s new education, and few have dared point out that it doesn’t work.
Reading an “e-Text” on a digital screen, or conducting a class online presents the image of being techno-savvy. It has a track record of failure.
More than 15 years ago, an award-winning industrial psychologist Charles Bigelow discovered that we read computer screens nearly thirty percent slower than we read print. This is due to our eye physiology and to the poor resolution of the media. “Resolution” is a property we study in biology: how close can two dots appear before we see them as one. And screen resolution is poor. We would need ten times better resolution on screen to read as fast as we can on paper. The new 1080-line HDTV only doubles the resolution, falling far short of solving this problem.
We also comprehend less. Forrester Research found our retention is also thirty percent lower when we read material online rather than in print.
The message for hi-tech “paperless” schools is simple. If students are forced to do all classwork at these lower rates of speed and comprehension, they will need five years to comprehend the same material they would learn by reading conventional textbooks in four years.
This should be no surprise to most of the reading public. “E-books” came out in the trade market (mystery and romance novels) almost a decade ago. The experiment was a failure. Few people could read over 20 to 30 pages before the eyestrain became unbearable. We can and do read screens for bits of directory information. But we need the printed page when it comes to extended reading, from English literature to a biology textbook to a longer newspaper article.
We intuitively know this. What do we do when we find a lengthy article online? We print it off. And that is exactly what the students at the hi-tech high schools are doing: printing off their literature and textbooks. Virtual schools brag they are saving money on paper textbooks. But they are merely shifting the printing cost to the home.
Computer enthusiasts brag that online courses save trees. But research shows that the electronic age has generated more paper than ever before. And in printing off e-textbooks, the cost in time, inkjet cartridges and paper easily wipes out any savings, not to mention the energy used while trying to read text online. The self-published product is shoddy and actually more expensive than a professionally published text. And it doesn’t get cycled through other students.
When I hand this research to techno-educationists, proving their students are reading thirty percent slower and comprehending thirty percent less, thus needing to go to high school a fifth year, the response has been the same: just re-write the outcomes for high school. Translated: just water down the expectations.
And the student’s bill for new eyeglasses? That is not their problem.
John Richard Schrock trains biology teachers and lives in Emporia.