Tech trends: Print vs. digital textbooks and Barnes & Noble’s new tablet

In the market for a new tablet? Rumors hinted at Barnes & Noble planning to release a new 7-inch NOOK tablet, designed to compete with the low-end price point of the bestselling Amazon Fire tablet, before the holiday shopping season. I’m a long time NOOK user, so this is exciting news for me, especially as my old tablet died over the summer. The news got me thinking about the old print vs. digital textbooks debate, and it looks like the jury is still out.

Print or digital textbooks, which do you prefer? (Credit: Pexels)

Print or digital textbooks, which do you prefer? (Credit: Pexels)

I read both in print and digital interchangeably, and I’ve expanded my reading in the past few years to include smaller devices, like my cell phone, among my displays. But a phone screen is certainly not the ideal way to read a textbook. What are the arguments for or against experiencing your textbooks digitally? Check it out to see whether or not digital textbooks are the way to go for your own learning style and budget.

Reading comprehension and memory

One of the things I notice about reading on a screen vs. reading in print is that, with print, I have a physical memory of where on a page I’ve seen something, which sometimes makes it easier to recall the material. Alternately, in a digital format, I can typically use a very handy search function to track down the information I need—as long as I remember key phrases correctly. I’ve had the experience in both cases where I couldn’t find what I was looking for: I was sure I saw something about three quarters of the way through the book (and it wasn’t there), or I could have sworn I remembered an exact phrase (and then was off by an inserted or deleted word).

Does format really impact memory? According to Anne Niccoli’s research roundup in “Paper or Tablet? Reading Recall and Comprehension” from September 28, 2015 in EducauseReview, suggested that studies have noted shortcuts used by digital readers in their behaviors. According to one study, “digital screen readers engaged in greater use of shortcuts such as browsing for keywords and selectivity. Moveover, they were more likely to read a document only once and expend less time with in-depth reading.”

Well, that sounds bad. But is scanning for keywords really a problem? On a reread or while studying, that kind of selectivity can actually be helpful. If you are a digital reader, it might be worthwhile to note that trend and combat it on your own: make sure that on the first read, you focus on a document thoroughly (turn off your notifications for an hour!); and as you study, commit to rereading the text, even in a scanning fashion.

Testing on print and digital textbooks

According to an Indiana State University study, reported on by Leslie Mann in the Chicago Tribune in “Pros and cons of digital textbooks,” August 7, 2013, students test equally well regardless of their chosen textbook medium. Given that equality, lead researcher Jim Johnson considered the pros and cons. “The biggest ‘pro’ of digital texts is convenience,” he noted. “Another ‘pro’ is professors like digital texts because they can provide more current material than print textbooks, which can take a year or two to get to print.”

The biggest con, according to Johnson’s study, was eyestrain from digital reading. “Computer vision syndrome,” the technical term for this kind of eyestrain, isn’t just from reading on a tablet or phone, it’s also from staring at a screen while writing papers. (Or on a Netflix marathon…) How can you prevent this?

The experts are still very much debating how medium impacts learning, and there are advantages to both formats. In the meantime, you can keep an eye on the news to see if you should put an inexpensive new NOOK (or other competing tablet) on your wishlist for the holiday shopping season!

Do you prefer digital or print textbooks for your courses? Tell us in the comments!

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