Is reading onscreen so very different from print?

Earlier today, I retweeted a link to a Conversation article about why we seem to remember more when we read an article in print than we do onscreen.

The concern of the article was based around online learning and the argument was that reading on screen was different, and usually in a more distracted environment, while the physical engagement with the document reading a print article enabled greater concentration.

Equally the article argued that also, because we see digital contents as more disposable, we tend not to engage with it to the same degree that we do with printed text.

Well maybe.

My experiments with the dogfood tablet have inadvertently demonstrated (and this is only anecdotal) that if one has a distraction free environment on can concentrate on the text more.

My other anecdotal comment based on my own experience is that one has to learn to engage with the text.

In my youth I read a lot of science fiction. This gave me the ability to read quickly and retain a story. Unfortunately, this didn’t quite work at university when I started reading research reports and reading critically.

I solved this problem by teaching myself to read closely by writing a precis of the text, something I still sometimes do today.

But what if you lived in a pre-literate society, or one where very few people could read fluently?

When I worked for AIATSIS, I was privileged to hear a recounting of a dream-time story by a group of Aboriginal traditional performers.

Even in an anonymous meeting room in Canberra, it was an enormously powerful experience, spine tinglingly so, with a rhythm to the story and the beating of sticks for effect at critical points in the tale.

At the time, I could not help thinking that this was how the Iliad or the Odyssey must have been when first performed, or Beowulf with its beating alliteration.

You would remember these stories because not only of the performance but because the repetition and alliteration would make them easier to remember.

Even early Greek theatre, or at least those plays that have survived, or the plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries worked well and were memorable through not only the stories but the images and turns of phrase.

And the same must surely be true of onscreen reading.

The texts need to be memorable.

If they are not memorable one must make them so either by precising the texts or some other trick.

I’d like to see a study carried out to see if students who read onscreen while taking notes retained more than those who read a printed version of the text and did not …

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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