Digital Reading (from LA)

Having spent a significant chunk of time during my trip to LA last week in classrooms (and another large chunk in traffic), was able to talk informally with many students about their experiences as readers and as digital readers. While I conducted no formal interviews with students, there were a number of themes that emerged with these teens that are similar to the themes I am discovering in official interviews that I am doing for our book project on digital reading. Here are a few reflections on what I discovered.


Image from Flickr.  Some rights reserved by bm.iphone.
Image from Flickr. Some rights reserved by bm.iphone.

First, I want to start with some limitations of the technologies for digital reading. Many of the students that I talked to discussed the fact that iPads are difficult screens to read from. The glass surface is too reflective and the glare is distracting. While some e-reader screens are better (one student mentioned her Kindle specifically), they find it difficult to read long passages of text on screen. Many of them described how they would print — and would prefer it if their teachers would print — their reading homework.

It is also about familiarity (simply holding a book is a nice feeling) and a sense of accomplishment as one flips through the pages toward the end of a section or chapter. Annotating is doable, but sometimes awkward with ebooks. One student said that she felt no sense of accomplishment with ebooks and, while she can get distracted with real books too, she would often feel as if words, sentences, and pages simply melded together.

So, there is something (or a few somethings) to be said for comfort.

Reading Choices

Of a more positive note, a second point that emerged is the fact that many teens did report (at least through knowing nods and smiles) that they did read online, though I am sure that the amount and quality of reading varies widely (as it does for adults, too, I am sure). Still, they reported some interested digital reading practices, most notably the idea that the way they find interesting things to read include tools like Tumblr, Stumble Upon, and Flipboard. In other words, they don’t often start with search as the default for finding things to read online.

Again, this was not a result discussed by all the students (a few still headed to Google or Yahoo first), but it did suggest that students are engaged in self-sponsored reading and, more importantly, figuring out a variety of ways to encounter new texts. Though they might still limit their choices based on the app, their social network, and their own preferences, I am curious to know more about how teens perceive these tools.

When teaching a group of seniors about Feedly, one young man made a comment to the effect that finding personalized content from across the web would actually make him want to read more. We talked about how to search within Feedly, as well as how to set up Google Alerts and use Tehnorati to find blogs. By the end of the class period, some students had a small, yet robust, list of multiple sources to read about their favorite topics.

New Norms

A third point that I want to mention could be broadly conceived of as the social norms of digital reading. In particular, one young woman described how — even when she is reading and annotating something for school purposes — her parents complain that she is just messing around with her iPad. Not sure what to make of this piece of information yet in the grand scheme of our study, but I know that this is a recurring theme and I am sure it will come up again.

E-reading Strategies

Finally, a few students and one teacher also mentioned a particular ebook reading strategy: search. Since ebooks lack page numbers, and people can change the font size for readability anyway, teachers can’t call out a page number anymore and expect that students will show up there. Thus, searching becomes essential. One teacher described how he would have students search for quotes, and I can imagine that would become a useful strategy in the context of teaching students how to find and cite textual evidence.

As we continue to gather survey results, am sure that some more surprises and trends will emerge. I look forward to discovering them.

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