‘Diving in’ with digital reading, distractions and all

Student reading on laptop

It’s a question being asked in all corners of academia, including TESOL:

“… how can universities help students read text thoughtfully, reflectively, and without distraction on digital devices?” — Naomi Brown, 2016

The digital revolution has transformed education. Gone — or nearly — are the days of overstuffed backpacks, weighty with hardback textbooks. Their replacement: slim tech devices, capable of holding and accessing a lifetime’s worth of texts. These are e-readers, tablets, laptops and even phones — each of them gloriously enriched, offering search tools and annotation apps, with in-device access to an Internet universe of contextualizing information.

This is reading in the 21st century: connected.

For some, a preference for print

For those of us who lived through the early days of this transformation, we know it was rife with debate. Even now, book lovers lament the sensory compromise of e-reading: the lack of olfactory comfort, of the earthy pulpy weight that grounded us to the here and now. They point out the downside of device-reading’s connectivity: temptation and distractions.

Among the critics of digital reading are some students who find it easier to concentrate with paper texts. This was a major finding of linguist Naomi Brown’s recent study, which she summarizes in an overview on The Conversation:

“When asked on which medium they felt they concentrated best, 92 percent replied “print.” For long academic readings, 86 percent favored print. Participants also reported being more likely to reread academic materials if they were in print. … in talking about digital screens, students noted ‘danger of distraction’ and ‘no concentration.'”

What’s interesting about this finding and many others like it is that it focuses on student perception and preference. But Brown herself reminds us, “student perceptions are not the same thing as measurable learning outcomes.”

And perceptions can be changed, as writer Clive Thompson points out in his engaging reflective essay, “Reading War and Peace on my IPhone.” He suggests that concentration is more about orientation to the task — the beliefs we’re bringing to our engagement with the medium:

“When we believe that reading on a phone is equally “serious” as reading on paper, we internalize that reading just as deeply” (Thompson, 2016).

Recognizing realities of the digital revolution 

Whether or not they’re concerned about distraction, students’ technological practices are undeniable. Smartphones abound. Laptops engulf them. And while it may be tempting to try to ban these devices from our classrooms entirely, a wiser approach may be to view them as affordances, working with students to use them responsibly.

After all, suggests digital-reading scholar N. Katherine Hayles, this is where the world is heading:

“Young people, who vote with their feet in college, are marching in…the digital direction. No doubt those who already read well will take classes based on close reading and benefit from them, but what about others whose print-reading skills are not as highly developed? To reach them, we must start close to where they are, rather than where we imagine or hope they might be.” (Hayles, cited here.)

‘Diving in’ to meet students where they’re at

The approach Hayles suggests here echoes a similar call 40 years ago by legendary writing teacher Mina Shaughnessy, who urged her colleagues to respond to the influx of ‘remedial’ discourse learners in higher education not with condemnation for their habits, but with an earnest interest in their life experiences and orientations, and the patience to engage them in shared discovery.

“[T]he teacher who has come this far must now make a decision that demands professional courage — the decision to remediate himself, to become a student of new disciplines and his students themselves in order to perceive both their difficulties and their incipient excellence,” (Shaugnessy, 1976, “Diving in: an introduction to basic writing”).

Though Shaughnessy was talking about ‘diving in’ to education more broadly, her words are transferable to this 21st-century context. For teachers to help students grapple with the distractions that accompany the affordances of learning technologies, we must ‘dive in’ and understand their experiences. We must engage them in dialogue about our shared goals, and together find ways of managing distraction and using these devices responsibly.

Tips for thriving in a connected classroom

1. Set expectations early and collaboratively. On the first day of class, talk to students about managing digital distractions together. Ask for their suggestions. Do you need two-minute ‘tech breaks‘ every hour? Do you want to all agree to use a social-media blocking app during class time? They’ve likely thought about this before, and might have better ideas than you!

2. Educate yourself on digital reading literature. The University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Teaching and Learning has a fabulous introduction to this topic, complete with teaching suggestions and a wealth of recommended readings to explore.

3. Educate your students about the range of options at their fingertips — including occasional use of print. Print out a headier text from time to time and teach students how to do old-school annotation, with actual margin notes and wet-ink highlights. During post-task reflection, talk about how to transfer these practices to digital reading, and talk through their range of options for getting closely familiar with texts.

Discussed in this post

Brown, N. (2016). Do students lose depth in digital reading. TheConversation.com. Retrieved 28 August 2016, from https://theconversation.com/do-students-lose-depth-in-digital-reading-61897

Center for Teaching & Learning. (2016). What We “Know” About Reading Digitally. Teaching.berkeley.edu. Retrieved 28 August 2016, from http://teaching.berkeley.edu/what-we-know-about-reading-digitally

Shaughnessy, M. (1976). Diving in: An Introduction to Basic Writing. College Composition And Communication, 27(3), 234. http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/357036

Thompson, C. (2016). Reading War and Peace on my iPhone. BOOK RIOT. Retrieved 28 August 2016, from http://bookriot.com/quarterly/bkr07/

Do you have tips for helping students manage distraction while reading on digital devices? Please share in the comments!