Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind
September 20, 2008 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind. Testing shows people "read" online text much differently than printed text.

Before reading this extended description, I recommend reading the linked article and being conscious of your reading style, as discussed in the article. For those without the patience for reading longish articles online, here is the articles "nut":
In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, Nielsen exclaimed, "'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else. A 2003 Nielsen warning asserted that a PDF file strikes users as a "content blob," and they won't read it unless they print it out. A "booklike" page on screen, it seems, turns them off and sends them away.
posted by stbalbach (75 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
wtf r u talkin bout this is bullshti
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:55 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Seriously, this is a fascinating study.
That's the drift of screen reading. Yes, it's a kind of literacy, but it breaks down in the face of a dense argument, a Modernist poem, a long political tract, and other texts that require steady focus and linear attention — in a word, slow reading. Fast scanning doesn't foster flexible minds that can adapt to all kinds of texts, and it doesn't translate into academic reading. If it did, then in a 2006 Chronicle survey of college professors, fully 41 percent wouldn't have labeled students "not well prepared" in reading (48 percent rated them "somewhat well prepared"). We would not find that the percentage of college graduates who reached "proficiency" literacy in 1992 was 40 percent, while in 2003 only 31 percent scored "proficient." We would see reading scores inching upward, instead of seeing, for instance, that the percentage of high-school students who reached proficiency dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent from 1992 to 2005.
I miss the days when Cliff Notes were the Great Satan of public school.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 8:58 AM on September 20, 2008


I didn't see the argument for online literacy being a lesser kind. There was definitely an argument that it was a different kind, but the valuation was simply assumed. (Not that I think he's wrong. This article just provides more invective than investigation.)
posted by voltairemodern at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


tl;dr
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2008 [9 favorites]


Oh come on.

That's the drift of screen reading. Yes, it's a kind of literacy, but it breaks down in the face of a dense argument, a Modernist poem, a long political tract, and other texts that require steady focus and linear attention stuff old white people like — in a word, slow reading. Fast scanning doesn't foster flexible minds that can adapt to all kinds of texts is done by those damn kids who thought they were so funny when they sent me that video of the young ladies drinking poo from a cup
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:11 AM on September 20, 2008 [7 favorites]


tl;dr

Astro Zombie's claim is belied by the proper use of a semi-colon.
posted by O Blitiri at 9:12 AM on September 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


Also interesting that they trotted out the bogeyman "online," when it seems like this is really about reading on a computer screen rather than on paper. There's a potentially interesting subject here (I guess), but when the "trouble in River City" mentality is so far to the forefront, there's no point in even paying serious attention to it.

So yeah: tl;dr
posted by drjimmy11 at 9:13 AM on September 20, 2008


Previously
posted by RogerB at 9:18 AM on September 20, 2008


They go straight to the comments, right?
posted by b1tr0t at 9:24 AM on September 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm often assigned long readings via PDF for school, and unless they're fairly short, I find it very difficult to read them unless I print them out. If they're on the computer, I'll zone out within five minutes, or decide to check my mail, or something, but with a printout I can easily sit down for 45 minutes and read it carefully.

I really can't articulate why, either. It might be that I view the computer itself as little more then a source of quick distractions, so that I can't get my mind in serious reading mode while staring at a computer screen. Or maybe a physical document is more satisfying to finish, because you can see the progress you've made in a stack of pages on the left, not just in little numbers at the bottom of the screen.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:29 AM on September 20, 2008


Opinion and conjecture served with a steaming side of conflating correlation and causation.

I wish someone would actually make a case for electronic literacy being "lesser"... you know, with like real arguments and evidence. As it stands, nearly every article and opinion piece that advances this position boils down to "LOOK WHAT THE KIDS ARE DOING TO OUR PRECIOUS LAWNS" and that makes it hard to take the argument seriously.
posted by aparrish at 9:33 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


voltairemodern: "I didn't see the argument for online literacy being a lesser kind. "

You didn't see it, or don't agree with it? One is an issue of reading comprehension, because the argument is there. See `Marisa Stole the Precious Thing` comment. If reading online is better, than shouldn't we be seeing better reading comprehension test scores in schools, which have embraced technology and kids use it at home, instead they are trending downwards from previous generations that did it the old fashioned way.
posted by stbalbach at 9:33 AM on September 20, 2008


aparrish: "I wish someone would actually make a case for electronic literacy being "lesser"... you know, with like real arguments and evidence. "

*shrug* I thought the article did. I read it top to bottom carefully. Seemed to me. It's a summation of research done by Jakob Nielsen.
posted by stbalbach at 9:36 AM on September 20, 2008


The first part was pretty good, but I just sort of skimmed it towards the end.
posted by TedW at 9:44 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


"I required students in a literature survey course to obtain obituaries of famous writers without using the Internet, they stared in confusion."

This is infuriating. What constitutes "the Internet"? They're not even allowed to use Lexis-Nexis? I *am* a librarian, and these assignments are dumb, and they confuse students as to what constitutes reliable sources. This is why I get people at the reference desk who need 10 peer-reviewed articles but "my professor says they can't be on the internet." Useless useless useless. Sorry, we sent the Readers' Guide offsite to make room for more goddamn books. Make up your mind.
posted by unknowncommand at 9:44 AM on September 20, 2008 [14 favorites]


Actually I enjoyed th article, and was interested to hear what Jakob Nielsen and Donald Norman had to say (I have read their writings for many years, ever since a colleague reccommended Norman's The Design of Everyday Things, which really changed the way I look at functionality and human error). I work much the same way in my own life; I read a lot online, but when I am plowing through a pile of journal articles to prepare a lecture I download them from the web but print out PDFs to actually work with.
posted by TedW at 9:56 AM on September 20, 2008


Finally got around to reading the complete "nut" offered above. This, to me, is the nut of it:

"'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else.

My first reaction to this is no reaction at all other than, well, welcome to 2008. Seems to me that this an entirely functional way to deal with the problem of all that text one finds while surfing the net (ie: if you must read every word that comes your way, you're not going to get very far).

Is it it a tragedy that I didn't read every word in this Defamer article about how Britney Spears' mom regrets letting her get drugged and fucked in her teenage years? No, it's more like a common sense application of a survival skill.
posted by philip-random at 10:04 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


Well, I'm twenty-five, grew up with the Internet, and it's been my primary form of media since 2002 (when I moved to college and got a non-dial-up connection). I'd be lost without the internet. I'm also a huge book nerd; read constantly as a child and during my teen years, and still read a lot, both on-screen and off, whenever I have time. And I can pretty much positively state that I have a harder time reading long, complex arguments than I used to. I can still read light fiction like the wind, but after ten or fifteen pages of denser prose, whether on screen or off, I find my attention wandering, and usually will put it down and go do something else like check my e-mail or Metafilter before getting back to it.

Maybe I'm just getting stupider as I get older, but I genuinely think the way I use the Internet has changed the way I read. I know that's just one person's opinion, and I have way to empirically test it, but that's what I think, for what it's worth.

Sometimes I wish I could concentrate on long readings a little better, but not enough to strip myself of all the usefulness and entertainment value of the Internet. I suspect it would take years tor repair at this point, anyway.
posted by Caduceus at 10:05 AM on September 20, 2008 [8 favorites]


I'm not doing well with consistent capitalization here.
posted by Caduceus at 10:06 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I skimmed the linked article (ha!) and I agree with drjimmy11 that this may be as much a problem with reading on computer screens as reading online. I think the "landscape" layout has something to do with it; books and magazines are almost always "portrait" and it's easier to flick your eyes to the next line of text when you don't have to traverse as far.

Sites like MeFi are a little harder to read because the text extends all the way across the screen (at least on my computer) and it's a bit harder to jump to the next line without landing in the wrong place. OK, it's a tiny tiny problem but multiply that by all the lines of text here and it means I skip really long posts unless they're by people I admire. And I'm 48 and have a Ph.D., so no "ditzy kid" effect here. (P.S. If you have a lot to say and you want me to read your post, use lots of paragraph breaks. They provide good visual landmarks.)

I also think the quick-skim style of reading online is a chicken-and-egg problem. A lot of web pages are visually noisy, with multiple colors and fonts and sidebars and ads and blinky crap. They just don't create an atmosphere of quiet concentration and it's no surprise that people skip around looking for a quick hit of information, then leave. Blinky crap makes people want to leave in a hurry, so users are "trained" to skim quickly then get out.

The flashier a website is, the more likely I am to skim it rather than read it carefully since I equate visual noise with rubbish content. Sites with less distracting layouts (e.g., MeFi, Wikipedia) encourage me to read more carefully and I'd bet that's true for many people, including "kids these days". The medium can be a great part of the message, and blinky crap says "nothing worth reading here, move along".

I guess the problem is if somebody grows up exposed to mostly blinky crap and never learns the skill of focusing for extended periods. But I have to say that most of the kids I remember from high school in the 1970s seemed to have the attention span of a goldfish, so I'm not sure things have changed that much.
posted by Quietgal at 10:06 AM on September 20, 2008 [4 favorites]


Interesting, but far from conclusive about anything. I read a lot - roughly equal parts pixel and dead tree - and have come to pretty similar conclusions about how I read on my computer, and this informs _what_ I read on my computer. I don't have the patience for long PDFs anymore, and I'll just print them out or convert them to HTML and read the text in a long skinny column with a nice big font.

I believe that what they are looking at is simply the limitations of computer monitor technology. They aren't as easy to read, or even look at for a long time, as a piece of paper with high contrast printing. I'd love to see this tested. Repeat the study with a larger sample size and control for font size, contrast, brightness and distance from screen/paper.
posted by Anoplura at 10:15 AM on September 20, 2008


The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else. A 2003 Nielsen warning asserted that a PDF file strikes users as a "content blob," and they won't read it unless they print it out.

I think the key part here is that the Internet is a much more interactive environment than traditional text. When you have a mouse, keyboard, tabs, email, etc. all at your disposal at once, you expect to be able to use all of those things and the content providers themselves conform to those expectations.

I have a Sony Reader device, which lets me view digital text and images in a very book-like fashion. The only real navigation controls it has are next page and previous page, just like a book. The device is great for reading novels, and terrible for reading blog posts or other Internet content. Outside of online news articles, the "Read this large block of text for a few minutes" style does not really exist on the web.

One other area where interaction leads to shorter and more concise text is in the world of Interactive Fiction (text adventures). Long text in an IF game is called a "text dump" or "screen dump", and nearly everyone who plays IF games hates them. Having to sit and read something with no interaction for a significant amount of time has a very powerful effect of removing the feeling of interactivity from the game. IF authors learn the art of conveying the maximum amount of information in the minimum amount of text, which is what the Internet tends to do as well.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:16 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I find it easier to read things like graphic novels and magazines on a computer screen, but when it comes to books and academic articles, I prefer audio to any form of visible writing. I have no idea why.
posted by tehloki at 10:17 AM on September 20, 2008


As Quietgal says, people design web sites to be consumed rather than read. You can't make your site look like People magazine and expect people to read it like a Noam Chomsky paper. I am also beginning to wonder if people are even using the correct color schemes and fonts. I find myself preferring to read things in monospaced fonts and light-on-dark color schemes, like the Old Days of computing--I just think it's easier on my eyes and my attention span than today's eety beety teeny tiny stylish fonts and color schemes chosen like wallpaper rather than print design. (Chronicle.com's bright pink bar on the left annoyed me, for example.)
posted by sonic meat machine at 10:19 AM on September 20, 2008


Long text in an IF game is called a "text dump" or "screen dump", and nearly everyone who plays IF games hates them. Having to sit and read something with no interaction for a significant amount of time has a very powerful effect of removing the feeling of interactivity from the game.

Nice point. Online (and onscreen) reading is simply (or perhaps complexly) a different dynamic than on-page reading. No doubt, Marshall McLuhan would have had something deep and perceptive to say about it.
posted by philip-random at 10:23 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I skimmed the linked article (ha!) and I agree with drjimmy11 that this may be as much a problem with reading on computer screens as reading online. I think the "landscape" layout has something to do with it; books and magazines are almost always "portrait" and it's easier to flick your eyes to the next line of text when you don't have to traverse as far.

I agree that a computer screen is part of the problem, but I don't think it explains everything. For example, when's the last time you watched an hour-long video straight through with no interruptions on your computer? And yet on a less interactive device like a TV, people watch hour-long episodes of TV shows regularly. The YouTube format is perfect for the Internet because most of the videos are short, so that the user can quickly watch (or watch the first few seconds and skip) and then move onto something else.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:26 AM on September 20, 2008


Of course people are going to have problems reading a dense journal article off a database when the rest of the web is sitting in the next browser. They're also going to have trouble reading it when the TV remote is an arm's length away or their best friend calls with the latest gossip. To me that seems more an issue of attention span and willpower rather than literacy. Was Nielsen's study focused on people attempting to read academic articles on the web, or did it just track how people read the internet in general? There's a huge difference in intent, and I don't think it's valid to automatically translate how people read the internet in their free time to how they read when they're attempting to learn.

In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations.

Students do this with their textbooks, too. Very rarely do the students I know sit down and read their science or history book straight through. You jump around "chasing" the things that catch your attention, call it good, and move on. I'd doubt that students did differently before the internet was invented.

Even if you read material differently on the web, I'm not sure why that means you should take technology out of the classroom. You shouldn't be handing a kid a computer with a link to The Republic and tell him to have Books I-V ready for next Thursday. You should be using technology to supplement the reading -- have them make Powerpoint presentations or web pages explaining the different kinds of knowledge, or show them a youtube video about the allegory of the cave, or have an online discussion board where they can ask and answer questions as they read. Technology doesn't replace traditional reading, it supplements it.
posted by lilac girl at 10:31 AM on September 20, 2008


People fear new technologies, like writing. In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates, quoting an Egyptian story, argued with Phaedrus that:
If men learn this [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls; they will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.
Phaedrus thought this sounded fishy at first, but then agreed.

Those of us writing posts and commenting in threads ... Shit. What was the article about?
posted by josephtate at 10:36 AM on September 20, 2008 [5 favorites]


I think there has to be something missing here from the description of how people read. At least when comparing to how I read on the interwebs. I read more like I would a magazine, flipping through the pages until I find an "article" I want to read. Then I skim the first few paragraphs - if it holds my interest, I read the whole thing. If not, I move on to something else.

I'm certain people read some things on the web line by line, because those things, such as news articles and essays, etc . . . are meant to be read line by line. But if you have a blob of text that is meaningless (maybe a sales pitch?) then I'm not going to waste my time on it.

I often take copy from sales & marketing and cut it down to bullet points of the more important information. Because our marketing teams will try to put paragraphs fluff that no one in their right mind would read. Because its not a book and people just want the guts of what sale/special/promotion is being offered. This would be the same for physical advertising.

so . . .

TL;DR: the internet isn't a book.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:02 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the article:
"Last year when I required students in a literature survey course to obtain obituaries of famous writers without using the Internet, they stared in confusion. Checking a reference book, asking a librarian, and finding a microfiche didn't occur to them. So many free deliveries through the screen had sapped that initiative."
Of course it didn't. Because using the Internet is the [easiest|fastest|best] way to do so. If you asked me to go get some milk, but I wasn't allowed to use the supermarket, I wouldn't think of heading over to a local farm. I would ask you why you're being stupid. Reason, as always, has made my point even better.
That's akin to saying, "I asked students to make toast without a toaster, but building a fire and finding a long stick to hold the bread didn't occur to them. The toaster had sapped their initiative."
Standard "kids can't read poetry, oh noetry."
posted by Lemurrhea at 11:04 AM on September 20, 2008 [11 favorites]


"'Reading' is not even the right word." The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the "nut" and nothing else.

My reaction to this was thinking of newspapers, especially those a century ago that had headlines, secondary headlines, and often even tertiary headlines before a word of article text. Today, the NYT is one of the few newspapers that really uses secondaries, and remains one of the few that allows you a pretty full sense of what the article is about from just those headlines. Most rely on distilling an article down to two-to-six key words which may only tell half the story.

In any case, my grandfather was one of those who read the paper cover to cover, every article, every day. But the design of newspapers clearly indicates that they believe those are a minority of their readership.

Of course people are going to have problems reading a dense journal article off a database when the rest of the web is sitting in the next browser. They're also going to have trouble reading it when the TV remote is an arm's length away or their best friend calls with the latest gossip ... Students do this with their textbooks, too. Very rarely do the students I know sit down and read their science or history book straight through. You jump around "chasing" the things that catch your attention, call it good, and move on. I'd doubt that students did differently before the internet was invented.

I saw these as two sides of the same coin. The net and other technologies like cell phones have put all of our friends literally at our fingertips the way they never were before. (See Shirky's comments on the Facebook problem.) I have wondered to what extent this is affecting the learning process. I know that "study groups" existed long before this technology did, but what happens when a group learns? We know that some individuals will work alone, and others will work together, but there is probably a bell curve represented by a big middle where people rely on others a bit and themselves a bit. Sure, there are high-tech classrooms or conferences with wikis and chatrooms, but what of those classrooms that have these unofficially? Do such students learn as effectively or not? What value do they get from the social interaction as opposed to the solitaire studying? I'm sure I'm not the first to wonder. I was in college just before any of this was widely available, but today it looks like it could be a quite different ballgame.
posted by dhartung at 11:12 AM on September 20, 2008


This reminds me of foraging. When there are only a couple of berry bushes nearby, it makes sense spend a while picking them clean. It also gives you a nice feeling of self-satisfaction for being so efficient. But the Internet is like some vast fields of bushes, most of lower quality than the old bushes. Reading each website completely is a very poor strategy.

Not to mention the fact that a website designer is less likely than a book publisher to cater to *my* needs especially. Webmasters want to distract you with ads and such. Skimming skills are a counter to that.
posted by yath at 11:47 AM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm entertained by the strange-bedfellows aspect of Bauerlein citing Jakob Nielsen, a man who basically thinks bullet points are the highest form of writing, in support of a lapsarian story about how the Web is destroying our ability to do serious reading. Jakob Nielsen doesn't appear to know that people enjoy reading good writing, or even what it is; like Gruber says, he writes in awkward memo-speak as though it were the only style out there. He'd be more persuasive as an example of tech-blighted prose than an authority about it.

I required students in a literature survey course to obtain obituaries of famous writers without using the Internet...

The toaster had sapped their initiative.

I wouldn't want to endorse Reason magazine on any other subject, but... This analogy is exactly right, and the original complaint just reveals embarrassingly poor teaching. If you want to teach students that there are reasons to do deep archival research offline, come up with a task for which books give better results than online searches. There are plenty of examples, since only a small fraction of most libraries is online. Otherwise the assignment is just busy-work to appease the teacher, who is displaying nothing but his own blinkered foibles and power-hungry authoritarian style of pedagogy. Why would it be important to teach students the trappings of the pre-computerized library – the card catalog or the concordance – when the digital substitutes simply work better? Anyone who's done the kind of research that Bauerlein thinks he's teaching swears by digital catalogues and Google Books and so forth, as labor-savers and as ways of finding stuff you'd never otherwise know about.
posted by RogerB at 11:58 AM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I think it depends entirely on what you tend to use the internet for, what kinds of reading you reserve for the internet. If you tend to get your primary reading material online, you're going to read it a lot closer. Case in point: fanfiction. It's entirely online, you can't get a book version (though some people do print it out, but not many). Often there is so much of it that people do just read it online and leave comments. People in those communities (and there are a heck of a lot of them) read hundreds of thousands of words online on a regular basis, much of it pretty closely. Closely enough to write detailed reviews of it afterward. Fanfiction isn't meant to be in paper; it's accepted as an online reading experience.

But that's different than reading metafilter, or scanning headlines at ccn.com, or other news-like functions. It's even different from reading a pdf, which is asking to be printed. It's a web version rather than online text; we are expected and are expecting to print it out. I think it's more of a sign of what kind of reading we tend to use the internet for, or expect to use the internet for, more than whether the internet changes how we read. People skim the newspaper too; it doesn't mean they don't also concentrate on a novel.
posted by Hildegarde at 12:17 PM on September 20, 2008


They go straight to the comments, right?

I just scan for top favorites, myself.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:35 PM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


The "F" method they describe is, at least for me, spot-on when it comes to most articles. However, I think it's because most articles tend to have a pointless introduction, followed by a brief interesting part where the point is, and then a bunch of rambling, less important stuff at the end. Many articles aren't written in an engaging way and are padded for words (although padding seems to be more a problem in print than online).

When an article is interesting the whole way through, I read it the whole way through -- whether it's online or not. When it isn't, I don't.

I think that when people read articles, they tend to want to just get the point and move on. That's different than reading a book. At least for me, it doesn't have a lot to do with being online or not.
posted by Nattie at 1:16 PM on September 20, 2008


This analogy is exactly right, and the original complaint just reveals embarrassingly poor teaching. If you want to teach students that there are reasons to do deep archival research offline, come up with a task for which books give better results than online searches.

Do you think the students would be able to complete those tasks, or would they just say "This is stupid"? I have no idea myself. My natural tendency is to agree with the linked article, but of course I would, I grew up before the internet. I'm torn between my skepticism about "the sky is falling" arguments (like the claim that texting is destroying literacy) and my sense that in fact many people who grew up with the internet and attendant distractions aren't as good at the concentrated attention needed for traditional reading. But I'd like to see some actual data.
posted by languagehat at 1:23 PM on September 20, 2008


I used to not have patience for long blocks of text and my ability to read suffered, probably because I grew up using computers and watching television and not reading many books.

Thankfully, this has all changed as I got too impatient for even those media because I was starved for real content. Since then, I have forced myself to be able to read quickly and without skipping a word both in printed and digital media.

I have astigmatism in both eyes that is getting worse and this adds an additional obstacle to reading even real information on a web page (the anti-aliasing of fonts on screen makes it more difficult for my brain to immediately acquire the word and its meaning, whereas print is fine especially if held close), but I force myself to read through them even though it goes a lot slower if I'm interested in the content.

This may be the underlying and crucial common factor for all successful educational behaviors; young people have to care about content and real information. Young minds don't have an easy time filtering outright visceral stimulation and advertisers have been exploiting this since the inception of all media.

If this over-stimulation is the replacement for imagination and long threads of real thought at home and at school, young people might never gain the patience and drive for quiet concentration and pure intellectual understanding. They may just go through life looking for that "nut" of understanding, or the quick answer to the fill-in-the-blanks kind of schoolwork, and professional work, that seems to be so common these days. Afterall, if the workplace doesn't demand more ability than this, why would the schools need to raise standards?

My personal solution: Keep your HDTV for movies but get rid of that cable TV diarrhea firehose, get rid of the subscriptions to 1/3 advertisement magazines and newspapers, interact with websites that aren't a splattering of flash ads and oversized headlines. Want to see a particular TV show? Download it. Want a particular issue of a magazine, buy it at the newsstand, grab a coffee while doing it.
posted by hellslinger at 1:32 PM on September 20, 2008 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised there aren't more people agreeing with the conclusions of the study. I was a voracious reader as a kid. I was reading Hawthorne and Dickens in middle school, got a five on the AP English exam in eight grade and did a lot of academic reading, as well. I'm not trying to brag, just trying to establish a baseline for you.

Anyway, I go back and I try to read Hawthorne now, in my early 20s, or do academic reading or really pay attention to anything dense and detailed and I completely fall apart. My concentration for reading is completely shot. I jump around the page and miss details. My analysis is poor. It feels like it takes me half again or even twice as long to learn things as it used to because I'm simply not reading and absorbing the information clearly. I don't have the joy for it that I used to.

The difference is that in ninth grade, I really discovered the Internet. I switched to spending all of my time on that rather that with paper reading. I have ADHD, but it's clear I used to be able to handle it better with respect to its effects on my reading and comprehension skills.

Go ahead laugh at these professors and call them old fogies for wringing their hands over seeing similar problems with their students. Go ahead and pretend this is people who don't understand technology and the need to keep up with the times. Me, I'm going to continue to try to extricate myself from the computer and go back to a chair with a book and see if I can't learn to read and write properly again.
posted by schroedinger at 1:51 PM on September 20, 2008 [6 favorites]


Sites like MeFi are a little harder to read because the text extends all the way across the screen (at least on my computer)

Huh. Weird! .... See, on my computer, you can resize the browser.
posted by webmutant at 1:57 PM on September 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


dhartung, you are talking about heds and deks, and indeed there aren’t many sources that use deks. Slate does, for example. It would certainly be exceptional to find mid-century twin deks, which I admit sounds like some kind of steamship.

If you’re in Sydney in the next week or so, you might run across, or be handed, another treatment of the issue of online reading.
posted by joeclark at 2:06 PM on September 20, 2008


The internet, strangely enough, doesn't prevent me from reading. I read a lot, and my analysis skills haven't dropped off since I left grad school a few years ago, either, in spite of all the time I spend on the internets. I wouldn't blame the web for your decision to stop reading, schroedinger.
posted by Hildegarde at 2:37 PM on September 20, 2008


I learned this reading style out of necessity when slogging through lexis dumps in the mid 90's.

I probably wouldn't have become a skimmer if 90% of the text available in my education had not been complete crap.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 3:18 PM on September 20, 2008


If you want to teach students that there are reasons to do deep archival research offline, come up with a task for which books give better results than online searches ... Otherwise the assignment is just busy-work to appease the teacher, who is displaying nothing but his own blinkered foibles and power-hungry authoritarian style of pedagogy. Why would it be important to teach students the trappings of the pre-computerized library – the card catalog or the concordance – when the digital substitutes simply work better?

It's not an issue of whether library searches are better or worse, it's an issue of showing students that there is more than one way to retrieve information. What if there's a power outage? What if a server malfunctions? If students are so dependent on internet connections for their research, then this is exactly the sort of thing that a good teacher should try to remedy.
posted by spoobnooble at 3:34 PM on September 20, 2008


Yeah, I'd need to know a lot more about the methodology of that study before I accepted the conclusions being drawn from it.

But what shocked me was this:

We would not find that the percentage of college graduates who reached "proficiency" literacy in 1992 was 40 percent, while in 2003 only 31 percent scored "proficient."


How can it be possible that only 40% of college students were literate in 1992 and less than 1/3 are today? How is this being measured? How are these illiterates *getting into* college in the first place? What are they counting as "college"?

I figured that proficiency in literacy was essentially a requirement for getting into college-- I guess open admission schools, not so much.

Still, that seems bizarrely low.

And I don't think the internet has changed the way I read-- if anything, I read more than ever both in terms of books and online these days.

I wonder if the people they studied were skimming pages *until they found what they were looking for*-- and then they read that deeply? If the pages you actually want are only a tiny proportion of the pages you look at, this could appear to be that you are skimming everything. But this is deceptive: you are skimming in aid of finding the good stuff, not skimming because that's an inherent way people read online and because good stuff is rare, the study will pick up mostly skimming. AKA it's a sampling error.
posted by Maias at 3:37 PM on September 20, 2008


Do you think the students would be able to complete those tasks, or would they just say "This is stupid"?

If teaching had to pass that test with every student, there would be no point in even trying:

SOCRATES: And that the good life, the beautiful life, and the just life are the same; does that still hold, or not?

CRITO: This is stupid. (Exits, text-messaging as he goes.)

Of course students have to care first. That's easier to accomplish if you respect them by giving assignments without arbitrary restrictions and if you provide intelligible reasons for the assignments you give. Even though I'm perfectly capable of doing it without a computer, I'd probably "stare in confusion" – or anger – too, if given that obituary assignment, because it's pointless busywork to eliminate computers from a task like that. If the question were something that was hard to answer without looking at paper, something that really needed to involve the scavenger-hunt thrill of digging into an archive, and the students understood that, it'd surely be a different matter.
posted by RogerB at 3:39 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


The online reading experience is related to the notion of "information overload". There is so much information online, we develop strategies to keep up. It becomes a zero sum game, too much time spent at one article means other articles will go un-seen and un-read, a potential loss for us. When everything is free, and attention is the economic currency, time and attention becomes valuable and it takes a very special article to take up 15 minutes of our time. This is often expressed in comments like "tl;dr" and "15 minutes of my life I'll never get back."

To illustrate with an example, I often buy The Best American Science and Nature Writing. It is a book, an anthology published each year containing "the best" magazine articles of the prior year. I read it cover to cover, every word, with no regard how long it takes me, and recognition at some level I spent $15 to buy it, and want to justify my money. I have gone back and read the same articles online (most of them are freely online (self-link)) but the reading experience is night and day. When online, I skim past the first paragraph, usually a bait, looking for the meaty "nut" in the second or third paragraph. I read the first third and if I am not riveted by a gripping narrative I skim to the last few paragraphs looking for a conclusion. Then I might go back and read some parts here and there, all the while looking at the pictures, captions, slide shows, etc.. and then I move on to the next article or blog or website. At the end of the day, my reading comprehension and satisfaction level is lower reading the same articles online versus the book. In fact it is why I buy the book, versus just reading the articles online, it's the way I can really become absorbed in a story, and not just skim for facts and conclusions.

Some people are saying this phenomenon of reading online is a weakness of the Internet and it is why traditional media - magazine, newspapers in particular - are a stronger media in the long run and will not only survive the current crisis but thrive in the future. I realize there may be some self-interest here by those saying it, but I think it's a valid argument for why newspapers will never go the way of the scroll.
posted by stbalbach at 4:00 PM on September 20, 2008


The internet, strangely enough, doesn't prevent me from reading. I read a lot, and my analysis skills haven't dropped off since I left grad school a few years ago, either, in spite of all the time I spend on the internets. I wouldn't blame the web for your decision to stop reading, schroedinger.

First, nowhere in my post did I say the internet prevented me from reading. But nice strawman, there. I appreciate it. Did they teach you that in your graduate studies?

The point of my post was that, in my experience, switching the main source of reading from paper to online sources inhibited my slow-reading abilities, not that it prevented them. All I was pointing out was that if you spend your time on Wikipedia and news websites and online books instead of in their paper versions, it isn't necessarily going to do you any favors.

I'm not advocating we go back to painting pictures on cave walls, for Chrissake, I'm just saying that maybe it is not a good idea to assume more technology is automatically better. You know how TV dinners and microwave meals were magical when they were first invented? They were time-savers, bought to us from the future by scientists who were constantly finding ways to improve our lives and make things easier! Well, how many people still believe that? Frozen meals do save time, they are easier--but it is now widely recognized that there are downsides to living entirely off of them. There's even a Slow Food movement centered around advocating a return to home-grown, home-prepared food.

My point is reading on the internet is the same way. It's technologically advanced, yes, and it's easier, and finding things is a hell of a lot faster than using a card catalog, but it isn't necessarily better. It's a lot more difficult to read in depth on the screen, and if you're constantly getting your information by browsing it's a lot more difficult to develop the patience to read in dept on paper pages. There is a time and place for the internet, but there's gotta be balance between that and "slow reading." Hildegarde, you have found that balance, and that's great. This article is asserting that most college students have not, people are crying bullshit, and I'm pointing out that yeah, the author has a point because I am one of those college students he's talking about.
posted by schroedinger at 4:09 PM on September 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


What value do they get from the social interaction as opposed to the solitaire studying?

Big Name in Education (and elsewhere) Lev Vygotsky says real learning occurs only in social settings. There is the notion of the More and Less Knowledgeable Other, and while a book can be considered a MKO (it is written by one who is an expert or whatever), learning needs to be mediated in social settings before it can me internalized for retrieval later. OK, that is not a complete discussion of Vygotskian Sociocultural Theory by any means, but a good place to start.

It is funny because this article touches on what I do for research. I talk about learning communities online, New Literacies, etc. In short, so as not to bore people, I have come to the conclusion that students simply need to be taught what the appropriate strategy is for whatever the purpose happens to be. So online reading is done just as it should be. The F is the best way to do it. Developing authentic print reading skills and approaches early on (as opposed to basil readers, scripted programs or any of that) reinforces the "have to read every word in this novel" when one reads a novel and "can scan" when one can appropriately scan. We introduce the act and process of traditional reading so badly these days, it is no wonder people like the Internet and the "nut" and so on.

There is sustained "reading" or literate activity online. It just might be visual or whatever. PhotoShop contests are a good example of this).

Also, no one reads every word. No one follows a linear up and down (in English path). There is plenty of research which indicates we jump around the page of a book, too. We just do it so often that we don't feel ourselves doing it.
posted by oflinkey at 4:12 PM on September 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


* (in English) path of reading lines. Oops!
posted by oflinkey at 4:14 PM on September 20, 2008


Last year for a class on the history of reading as part of my library science/information degree, I read an article which very astutely pointed out that, um, people used to read/use the Bible very similarly to how we now read/use the Internet. That is, you weren't supposed to read it cover-to-cover - you learned how to find, read and think over/discuss small sections of it at a time. It's the concept of learned reading as the endurance test that's the new concept, not the cherry-picking (on the web or otherwise).

Also, how does wanting to know the purpose of an assignment (memorizing poetry lines) constitute "struggling"? I thought that showed, y'know, initiative and critical thinking. If it's obvious to you, the teacher, that there's a good reason to memorize a poem, and equally obvious to the student that there's no reason not to, then maybe it should occur to you that there's a culture gap - not a learning disability.
posted by bettafish at 4:31 PM on September 20, 2008


I read an article which very astutely pointed out that, um, people used to read/use the Bible very similarly to how we now read/use the Internet. That is, you weren't supposed to read it cover-to-cover

I'm not sure I see the relevance. The telephone directory isn't read cover-to-cover either. So? Most books are meant to be read cover-to-cover.

Also, how does wanting to know the purpose of an assignment (memorizing poetry lines) constitute "struggling"? I thought that showed, y'know, initiative and critical thinking.

Have you ever been a teacher? Because I'm pretty sure in 99% of the cases, a student saying "Why do we have to do this?" is being lazy and/or confrontational, not showing "initiative and critical thinking." Until one reaches adulthood (and often even then), it's hard to make oneself do drudgework in the expectation that it will pay off later on. I fervently wish I had studied harder as a Russian major in college; I might have achieved the reading ability I have now much sooner and done something with it as a career. But I liked to sleep in and stay out late having fun and there was beer and girls and politics and, well, I had other priorities. I might well have justified my laziness at the time by glaring and saying ending the war was more important than Russian class, but looking back, I was just lazy.
posted by languagehat at 5:10 PM on September 20, 2008


How can it be possible that only 40% of college students were literate in 1992 and less than 1/3 are today? How is this being measured? How are these illiterates *getting into* college in the first place? What are they counting as "college"?

I think you're confusing the idea of being literate at all with what's actually being talked about, which is proficient in literacy (i.e. advanced; far above the low-extreme of unable to read at all).
posted by tybeet at 5:15 PM on September 20, 2008


That explains why crackpots always use huge text and lots of multicolored fonts and whatnot.
posted by delmoi at 5:38 PM on September 20, 2008


spoobnooble, I definitely think there are benefits to using printed material - particularly primary source and archival material. But I never understood the "what if there's a power outage" and "what if the server's down" arguments. At least in the libraries I use, if the power's out or the server is down, the library is shut down - you can't check books in or out, you can't use the card catalog, and you can't even scan your ID card to get in the door. Even if you knew exactly which printed tome you needed, you'd have no way to find it on the shelf or see it once you got there.

There are reasons to use printed materials - including the serendipitous discoveries on a shelf or a page that you wouldn't find in a keyword search - as well as reasons to use electronic ones. But being crotchety about reliance on electricity is just silly.

Also, Lemurrhea: I shared your finding-milk-without-a-supermarket analogy with my mother, who is a librarian who has no patience for bound indexes. She got a total kick out of it, and is going to use it the next time she has to defend the internet to her coworkers.
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 6:58 PM on September 20, 2008


I was thinking about this topic earlier today, when I heard a radio ad for some TV show where the announcer actually said "OMG" and it sounded so jarring that I got to thinking about how the online experience has evolved a form of communication that is not written (it's only typed; you wouldn't write out any of the stuff we do here on birthday cards or letters) or spoken (obviously, despite the completely clueless efforts of the world's advertisers to try otherwise).

However, since I neither read the actual article nor the comments, I may be unqualified to make this observation. Or maybe I am.
posted by yhbc at 7:00 PM on September 20, 2008


"Last year when I required students in a literature survey course to obtain obituaries of famous writers without using the Internet, they stared in confusion. Checking a reference book, asking a librarian, and finding a microfiche didn't occur to them.
Of course it didn't. Because using the Internet is the [easiest|fastest|best] way to do so. If you asked me to go get some milk, but I wasn't allowed to use the supermarket, I wouldn't think of heading over to a local farm. I would ask you why you're being stupid.


Calling that exercise "stupid" is pretty harsh, and full of no small measure of foolishness itself. Or at least a failure to understand that a genuine education is likely to be full of exercises for which convenience and efficiency may not be the main point. It's not stupid to expect educated people to know how to use other tools other than those that present through a web browser or even a computer screen of any kind, regardless of how convenient those tools are.

Computer science and software engineering? Very few people individuals will spend any significant portion of their careers writing software in machine code or assembly language, but it's a valuable experience to go through even if you never use it.

Math? The modern world is *full* of convenient tools you're a fool if you don't take advantage of, but you can't get out of the shallow end of the pool unless you can learn to do a lot of this with a pencil and paper.

Music? There's fantastic auto-transcription and analysis tools, but until you can do it with your ears, you're going to be a bit a bit crippled.

I think the internet's fantastic and all that, and I tend to agree with people who think academia's oversuspicious of web sources, and eventually, maybe we will reach information nirvana with electronic paper and every analog document in existence digitized. But we're a long way off from having 100% of the world's knowledge on the web. In the meanwhile, exercises to help people learn to access the centuries of stuff in libraries seem like a pretty good idea to me.
posted by weston at 7:09 PM on September 20, 2008


RTFL actually means Read The First Line.
posted by Citizen Premier at 7:16 PM on September 20, 2008


What I find most frustrating about the article is the use of the word 'lesser' and the tone it brings to the table. I'm pro-'slow reading,' although I'm not quite sure if that's the best phrase. Should one read Notes From Underground slowly? Well, maybe the third time around. Should schools attempt to make students read a wide variety of texts in a wide variety of ways? Of course. Schools should not exist to create a weak minded populace which can perform the needed drudgery to drag itself through its day to day. Schools exist, in theory, to work the fucking mind. Same with libraries. Same with any other publicly funded institution devoted to education. This means challenging the way students think, the way everyone thinks. Is this what most schools do? No. But it's what every good teacher I've ever had has done. And they've usually done it by being antagonistic towards popular trends. Should we vilify for the internet for making us bad readers? Fuck no. We made us bad readers. And we're not going to reverse that by laying all our blame, or all our hope, at the internet's door.
posted by Football Bat at 7:49 PM on September 20, 2008


When I'm busy and there way too many comments, I pretty much only read the comments that are quoted in someone else's post, because those must be the important ones.
posted by smackfu at 7:56 PM on September 20, 2008


So I thought I'd read this article but it seemed like a long investment and I just tagged it for later. Does that validate what it's saying?
posted by adoarns at 8:02 PM on September 20, 2008


webmutant, I'm kind of laughing at myself here. Of course I could resize my browser window, but that would expose all the other windows I have open plus the icons on my desktop, and then I'd have the sort of visual clutter I dislike on other sites right here on my MetaFilter! Close windows and clean the desktop? Nah, easier to just deal with long lines of text and skip over the densest blobs of pontification.

I really think there's something different about reading on a computer versus paper. Like others upthread, if I really need to concentrate on some information I've found online, like a PDF containing technical specs, I print it out. Sometimes I make notes in the margins, which is a powerful aid to comprehension and retention, but even without notes I find that information on paper is somehow easier to absorb. I've noticed this seems to be true of my younger coworkers as well, including people in their 20s who pretty much grew up with the internet. What is it about paper that says "get serious"? Fonts? Resolution? Ergonomics? Lack of tempting distractions like email and other browser tabs?

And yeah, the "skim-and-run" style of reading websites is a necessary defense against the sheer volume of crap we try to deal with. You have a finite amount of time and the amount of rubbish online is effectively infinite, so you have to work fast to try to find the few diamonds scattered about.

Furthermore, my experience of the working world is that "fast" beats "good" almost every time - the boss would prefer that you do a fast half-assed job over a slow careful job in most cases, so why fight that short attention span? Skim a bunch of websites, slap a few bullet points in a memo and fire it off. Next. Note: I hate this.

The problem is that some situations (and careers) require long periods of intense concentration. Scientists, engineers, programmers, and a bunch of other geeky types need to be able to focus and override our lizard-brain's tendency to skip around. I would hope that the kids who'd choose those geeky careers are able to sit still and concentrate just as hard as their predecessors, despite their exposure to websites, TV shows, YouTube videos and other media that pander to the lizard-brain. (I have 2 young coworkers who seem to be doing fine despite growing up online, but that's n = 2.)

I guess it comes down to the question of whether patience and self-discipline are valued or not. Skimming and skipping around are easy so those skills, useful as they can be, are in no danger of dying out. Patience and self-discipline are hard and not immediately rewarded; that's a pretty big deterrent for many people. I just hope there's enough geek in our gene pool to keep up the population of scientists, engineers, programmers, etc. The economy is melting down faster than the icecaps and we're gonna need highly-trained smart people to get us out of this mess!
posted by Quietgal at 8:31 PM on September 20, 2008


This argument -- between online and offline reading -- seems to be gathering critical mass at the moment, perhaps thanks to Nicholas Carr's piece in the Atlantic a few months back in which he lamented (kind of lamely) that he can't concentrate anymore because he doesn't really feel like it, a condition he blamed entirely on the internet. (Too many temptations!)

It seems bizarre that we take such resistance to the idea that there are many kinds of reading -- and that one way of dividing them is to refer to a style of "offline reading" and a style of "online reading." But don't a lot of people read "offline" in this same manner? You don't read a cookbook like a novel; you get a magazine or a newspaper and you flip through it kind of at random until you settle on something that holds your interest, and so on. So why the garment-rending?
posted by sloweducation at 4:17 AM on September 21, 2008


we take such resistance to the idea that there are many kinds of reading

Not at all, everyone seems to agree there are different types of reading. The debate is in the value judgment. The FPP article of this post is in relation to school children reading comprehension abilities and test scores. So there are some very objective hard numbers to back up the idea that reading online is not as "literate" (reading comprehension test scores) as reading offline.
posted by stbalbach at 5:40 AM on September 21, 2008


Late to the party, as usual, but that comes from not spending my weekend doing much online reading ... *grin

Bauerlein's article was cited on my local faculty listserv and it depresses me no end to say that the level of discussion here on MeF is of several magnitudes higher in its understanding and articulation of the problems raised and examined in the article than what my alleged peers raised in their discussions. Because my institution has a long history of preparing educators, this is very troubling.

I see the issue of "online" versus other kinds of literacy being promulgated because the educators themselves have failed to grasp and understand how best to incorporate the use of the technologies at hand in their pedagogy. And sadly, that should have started about 35 years ago ... I fear that we will be experiencing a kind of "counter-revolution" in the use of digital resources for pedagogical purposes; either that, or a continuing decline in the level of abilities of the masses currently being churned through the American educational system (and I say that because I think that most of the research has been biased in that direction ... I'd be happy to be wrong on all counts!).
posted by aldus_manutius at 8:13 AM on September 21, 2008


I don't find it surprising or hard to believe that our web-reading-habits are very different from our paper-reading habits. Here's the bit I'd like to hear more about:
In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations.
One obvious question that the author doesn't much address is: why are we so distracted by these things?

One obvious answer is: because they are there. Most of the web really is designed like the back of a cereal box. There are loads of bullet points, visuals, color and typeface variations. Is it really such a radical idea that these distractions may be, well, distracting? This new habit of attempting to present complex information and arguments in a visually distracting way is a problem that extends beyond the web.

I think the difference between even the web version and the printable version of the Chronicle article is pretty instructive. (For best results, narrow your browser window so the printable version's lines are a comfortable length.) The printable version is tremendously more readable.

Many people complain that reading from a screen just isn't the same as reading from paper. I bet the distracting design of our screen media and the plain design of our print media is a big part of the reason.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:18 AM on September 21, 2008


A normal piece of paper with a "white" background is not emitting 100 candles/m^2 at you when you read it, whereas a CRT would have to be pretty dim for it not to.
posted by Jpfed at 8:47 AM on September 21, 2008


wow, web readers sure get defensive at the implication all this reading they're doing doesn't make them as literate as ploughing through a long and intricate argument. Yeh, and neither do comic books, but it doesn't make either thing bad.
posted by bonaldi at 9:12 AM on September 21, 2008


In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence.

Six subjects?

NEXT.
posted by WCityMike at 3:40 PM on September 21, 2008


you're either being fiendishly sarcastic, or proving the point :)
posted by bonaldi at 3:48 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


> you're either being fiendishly sarcastic, or proving the point :)

Read the whole thing, and not in F-style format, either. But I didn't find it at all convincing. But I can be brief in my responses, and that was the biggest "ohcomethefuckon" problem I had with this document.
posted by WCityMike at 3:51 PM on September 21, 2008


Dude, it's one in six, not one of six.
posted by bonaldi at 3:55 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


> Dude, it's one in six, not one of six.

I need a towel. I've got a white-shelled chicken product on my face. It appears to be rather old research, though.
posted by WCityMike at 4:09 PM on September 21, 2008


Many people complain that reading from a screen just isn't the same as reading from paper. I bet the distracting design of our screen media and the plain design of our print media is a big part of the reason.

Agreed. I have no problem reading text on computer that is formatted in a pleasing way. I regularly read novel-length texts online. Focusing on the poorly written text of your average online news article amid all the auto-playing video, flashing ads, and other ugly distractions that most sites seem to feel are "cutting edge" is something entirely different.
posted by threeturtles at 8:48 AM on September 22, 2008


I think the "landscape" layout has something to do with it; books and magazines are almost always "portrait" and it's easier to flick your eyes to the next line of text when you don't have to traverse as far.

I don't agree that landscape vs. portrait constitutes a major factor in the difference between reading on a screen vs. print. I have a tablet PC and frequently use it to browse the web in portrait mode, and I find myself skimming just as much as when using a computer with a standard, landscape-mode screen.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:38 PM on September 22, 2008


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