Under the Digital Textbook Initiative, California high school students will no longer lug home backpacks stuffed with math and science textbooks. Instead, they will do their homework reading digitally, on Kindles or laptops. According to the Ventura County Star, former Governor Schwarzenegger explained that “textbooks are outdated as far as I’m concerned. How can kids be competitive in this economy when textbooks are stale and outdated? An upgraded textbook initiative is not only good for student achievement but the school’s bottom line.”
Of course there are many reasons to move away from traditional textbooks: their exorbitant cost, the shocking speed at which printed data becomes outdated, and, obviously, concerns over California's budget.
But beyond all those very important issues, lie others, perhaps equally important. What does it mean to read? What else will change when reading in school means logging in, linking, jumping from idea to tangentially related idea via hypertext? If kids are already thinking associatively rather than logically as a result of the daily hours they spend in digital life, does it matter if the state officially, formally and completely validates it in school?
One British study, Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, implies that it does, suggesting that reliance on digital reading in school may have unintended negative consequences. The authors report that digital readers, “…from undergraduates to professors, …exhibit a strong tendency towards shallow, horizontal, ﬂicking behaviour”, represented by “power browsing” rather than in-depth reading, which they argue contributes to a society that is “dumbing down.” They also claim that when students grow more skilled at reading online, they grow less practiced at evaluating information for relevance, accuracy or authority.
Adults who do all their reading online may scoff at this idea. But author Nicolas Carr expresses painfully familiar experience in support of the study.
“Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.“
Does this sound familiar?
As we move further along the path toward digital reading, look for a secret rebellion. Dedicated parents everywhere will find a way to get their children into book clubs, yes, actual book clubs. In a world full of i-pods, privileged children still take piano lessons. As more and more children learn to read in a digital world, their parents, who sentimentally recall curling up on a couch with a book, blanket, dog and pretzels nearby, will try to pass this experience on. And if the experience is not transferring at school, then libraries may be the final frontier, as well as the best value in town.
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