Smartphones-in-School, Brain Mush, Teaching Deep Reading…and Apples & Bicycles!
By LeiLani Cauthen
According to a 2018 report by Pew Research, one in four Americans didn’t read a single book in the last year, and bookstore chains are in decline. However, Americans are actually reading, they’re just doing it in different ways than the traditional hardcover or paperback format. Audiobooks, social media and smartphone newsfeeds are what Americans are doing. On smartphones. It’s considered by pundits that the shift in access via smartphones has caused a mutation in content consumption away from only books and long-form reading. While there are still eBooks being consumed, it is dwarfed by the amount of time people of all ages now spend on short-form reading of “throw away” information that is mostly media articles or social.
This is grave news to educators. Instinct tells us that less long-form reading is a great loss to culture and even our economy.
Yet there is something to the immediacy of access from smartphones that holds promise. Inside the mechanisms of software’s ability to fracture content and cost, inside the cultural shift, and inside the human change battle — is the possibility of finding some relief if educators approach smartphones as the greatest leverage for reading gains ever.
Bias alert #1: I travel to thirty-five or more cities a year to produce executive events with educators and I have found that my iPhone 10+ is my best friend on airplanes. I have read five long-form eBooks on it in the last few months through the Kindle reader and enjoyed them just as much as paper. No stewardess tells me to put it away just before landing, and my extra battery and headphones allow me to also play music while I read. I only have to dig out my laptop when I need to write instead of just read.
Why then are very few schools leveraging smartphones as an essential go-to device for reading programs? I don’t get it, so I started poking around. The Learning Counsel also authored a recent paper entitled “Digital vs. Paper Books: Let’s Do the Math!.”
The Smartphone Take-over
Digital content access is the new norm, a cultural influence so pervasive that one quarter of U.S. consumers say they sleep with their smartphone. Eighty-six percent of U.S. consumers have a smartphone. What’s even more important is that there is a cultural change of “phone-firsters,” a segment defined by using their phones as their primary, if not only, device for all communications and shopping activity that amounts to a quarter of all users. This group was described in February 2018 as unsurprisingly highly engaged with mobile, and their usage patterns indicate trends that the mobile mainstream will follow over the next six to twelve months.
It’s important to note that the rise of smartphones and tablets has coincided with eReader app sales going down in recent years and a slight return of paper book sales. However, getting a bead on exactly what is happening with eBook reading versus paper is currently complicated by a newly fractured eReader app market, an industry-wide increase in pricing in 2015, and the fact that national surveys study only the big publishers while small publishers and even one-off self-publishing and retailing has blossomed globally. An increasing share of eBooks are read on tablets, accounting for 50% of e-reading, smartphones at about 18%, and dedicated e-readers at about 20%. A lot of eBooks, including PDF-versions, don’t need an eReader app. On the consumer side, e-books alone are projected to generate nearly 20 billion U.S. dollars in revenue in 2018.
What’s important is that heavier devices may not always be with a student unless a school has deployed devices for all and allows them to be taken home, but a smartphone could be. It usually will be. The potential of this influence on increasing reading is immense. Harnessing what is, to the gain of learning, is this generation of education leaders’ real imperative.
Yet what about reading quality?
Apples & Bicycles
First of all, what was found in poking around is that the comparison of print to digital is way beyond the old apples-and-oranges comparison, and more like trying to authentically compare apples to bicycles. It is a giant false equivalence. Reading on a tablet computer or smartphone may have the similarity of reading and so is anecdotally pointed out as equal, but the claim of equivalence doesn’t bear out because the similarity is based on oversimplification or disregard of additional factors. Digital reading is better. Die-hard believers of print books for education are mostly arguing from a familiarity view, and the fact that textbooks are often constructed without regard to digital formatting.
Yet, if you had been born in a household in the last ten years with no books but parents that used smartphones and laptops for everything, you would be without familiarity with books. Several educators have mentioned to me that they now have students arriving in school who have “never even seen a book.” This complicates things because the newer digital natives are now sometimes not familiar with the old world of paper. Whoa, right? This means schools have to teach paper navigation, and that is a thing even if hard to believe. To navigate a book requires becoming familiar with paper for facets of its character. It is flat, it has two sides, compiled pieces can be sealed together on one side to form a book cover. A cover is sort of like an iPhone case. Recognition of how to use a book requires that you are familiar with word symbols in order to face it right-side-up and the cover opening to the right. That’s for English. For Chinese, it is opposite, and the symbols read vertically instead of horizontally and from right to left. Then you need orientation to the process of leafing through the book going forward (in digital it may be down and usually is in news online), the use of any table of contents, preface, citations and the like. Highlighting is manual. Looking up definitions is manual. There is no ability to “capture” text out of a larger page to paste into a social site and share or zoom in by pinching-out. Do you start to see that if you use books you may soon have to teach how to use them? They are now alien ground.
Bias alert #2: I have actually caught myself trying to pinch-out to zoom into paper because digital is the medium I am most used to. I frequently get chastised if I’m collaborating with an employee and their screen is non-touch because I am always trying to discuss some graphic or editorial and I will try to poke and move their screen with my finger. My laptop touch screen has to be cleaned a lot because I am always getting goo on it. Since I am called by my staff a “super-literate,” it is rare that I have to look up definitions and am always trying to find “easier” words to use. Recently I was reading an eBook and actually read a word I did not know and poked the word, and presto, got the definition right there in the eBook. Super happy. More importantly, it makes me not mentally halt there at that word, leaving a momentary confusion hovering there with some invented replacement for it or putting a mental blanket over it like I don’t need to know it, leaving a piece of my stupefied consciousness locked into a little bubble of frustration, back there on page 107. That halt and subsequent mental black-out anguish is perhaps the real truth for many students who cease reading, read slowly, fail to comprehend, or accumulate a distaste for reading. They miss words that could so easily be digital pop-up definitions. My father was an English teacher and used to tell me to “look it up” any time there was a big word I did not understand, or even a small one. He might have been lazy or doing something else every time. I was inquisitive. Other relatives the same, sometimes from huge dictionaries that weighed more than I did, left out open-on-the-spine to the last word looked up by someone in the middle of the house library table. Not all parents push that, and even some educators think you can reason out the definitions of words from context alone. This is wholly wrong because nearly all words have multiple definitions, some that are entirely nuanced. Missing this nuance misses the beautiful depth of meaning conveyed by famous authors, depriving readers of mind-expanding implications.
Yet even further understanding may be needed for discerning schools who do go all-digital. On the digital side, books may be merely digitized or they may be actually digital as a modification to add function. To digitize is to maintain the same general form as a paper book. To make digital is to add such abilities as definition look-up-by-click, adding margin notes, multiple bookmarks, highlighting pieces of text, fast-find by search of any word or word string, providing video embeddings, providing limitless graphics in full-color, auto-memory of where the reader device left off, and be accessible from any device.
At the pinnacle of offerings is the new arena of digital book collections. Differing from consumer-oriented digital book purchase, digital collections websites hosting many books can also provide guided sets of books based on reader levels, set automatically via assessment or pre-set by teachers. Client libraries can be set up for teachers to browse whole books without limit, and with any cost incurred only upon selection and opening the gate for students. Books can be set up to be available only for a limited window of time with analytics on student reading, including time-on-task and results of reading. Those sorts of automatic capacities add dimensions of value that clearly show a false equivalency with paper books.
Still Contrary Voices
Administrators and whole state adoption committees still have a “thing” for paper. What is going on is that there is a segment of education that resists digital, and it’s not just educators but publishers and parents as well. Usually the parents who succeeded well in life want the same exact education for their children and resist screen time as something that will debilitate character. If you browser search “paper versus digital,” any search engine will return thousands of listings of everything from emotional lamentations about the wonderful tactile of linen paper, to citations of studies proving that reading on a digital device appears to equate to less “deep reading.”
Here’s the thing about the contrariness: grandparents and parents everywhere, throughout all recorded time, have held contrary views to anything new and preferred the old – from music, to mode of dress. Did you know that Socrates told young Plato that writing and literacy were an invention that would surely turn young brains to mush (of course paraphrased, they didn’t have “brain mush” back then). Can you imagine? Writing and literacy would turn brains to mush – from an age of heated discourse, memorization, and highly crafted questioning came the idea that putting things down on paper would result in minds who could not reason on their own but would turn lazy and rely on outside philosophy written down to just consume. It’s hard to argue overmuch that this is not true, but without reading today we may not even get young minds to recognize logical reasoning, or the range of reason given our hurdy-gurdy world.
Perhaps the most lucid argument against digital is familiarity with and a deep affection for paper books. Yet who can argue that you like something more? If you do, feel free to pay the price of 1.2 to 5 times the cost of the digital version and wait for the mailman to bring the print copy.
The Deep Reading Myth
Deep reading, the active process of thoughtful and deliberate reading carried out to enhance one’s comprehension and enjoyment of a text is often contrasted with mere skimming or superficial reading. As already pointed out, paper books are a linear experience, differing in respect from digital in that technology allows a certain non-linearity, such as pop-up definitions as-you-go. Digital is not “flat,” and has a more facile range of function, interactivity, and distribution that is easy to argue enhances reading. The “deep reading” hypothesis that concerns paper loyalists is only meaningful when the content itself lends itself to conditions of being deep. Even deep texts rely on the reader building meaning from earlier exposures and experience, else the intended significance is lost. A five-year old is not going to be expected to take deep meaning from Thomas Paine’s 1776 Common Sense, written to a high level of literacy. The point about deep reading in transition to digital more factually lies in the function of selecting appropriate reading level, and human teacher interjection with discussion. Deep engagement follows deep interest, which can be instigated by circumstances and teachers.
Another point about the notion of deep reading is that it has emerged as something that must be taught now that even the writing and production of paper texts is created in all digital before going to paper, school testing is more digital, news feeds are less-than-ten-word headlines, and students live in the Twitterverse of no more than 280 characters. Only decades ago we had typewriters and could not back-up-delete and literally used liquid white-out to put a new word onto paper after a mistake. Writers had to envision their thoughts in full sentences, even full paragraphs before committing them to paper, and even had to craft their whole thesis mentally before committing to paper. This is a skill that is extremely rare today. It may even be why true journalism is dying.
Conversely, ability to read several whole paragraphs with retention and conceptualization of the meaningfulness of them together is a skill that short-form reading habits are losing. With the loss we are also possibly losing the ability to think in long form, to craft or realize more complex concepts, or carry-over one small idea given early in a text to later ones, tying them together in such a way to spark those moments of “ah-ha, so the butler did it, because he was the only one who had access to the candlestick in chapter one!” This is the sort of reward people get from deep reading.
More than deep-reading-as-something-to-be-taught, a case could be made that resolving to unify all content distribution as digital would streamline the learning process in education. Familiarity alone would increase long-form reading. When students have used a smartphone their whole lives, things like the Dewey Decimal system, microfiche, typewriters, and even fax machines are ancient history to them. Streamlining reading programs to use devices holds great promise because it can leverage an existing familiarity.
The Cost of eBooks
It’s also true that eBook publishing has seen its share of controversy, including a price-setting scheme. In March 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Apple’s appeal of a lower court decision that it conspired with five publishers to monopolistically increase eBook prices in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act. Apple was fined $450 million, while five Publishers paid out $166 million in a separate settlement. Few educators have heard of this court decision and may not understand the ramifications. The point of mentioning this is that publishers saw an opportunity to greatly reduce book production costs while significantly increasing profit. Unfortunately, their greed was also a lost opportunity to do great things for education.
It’s important to understand how much of a shift financially going digital really is for publishers, because it’s not all “cheaper” to do things in digital, even if distribution is enormously cheaper.
Choices in the eBook enhancement field include fixed format like PDFs which can be searched for key words, and “reflowable layout,” which looks like a page-turning book are not simple for everyone to produce and require expensive software. eBooks can also be enhanced with images, MP4 video, MP3 audio, and other features already stated. Then there is optimization, which many publishers are careful to do with all images since many eBook publishing platforms have limitations with media. Apple iBooks, for instance, does not accept images greater than 5 MB in size, or 4 megapixels in area. All of this means more work for authors and their new side-kicks, the tech compilers. The fact is, eBooks are actually the best deal on the market from the perspective of how much labor goes into them to make them more useful. The reason for this is that both authors, who understand how to use digital enhancements, and the programmers and compilers are typically way higher salaried for their production of function in an eBook. Their work is also cost-prohibitive for schools or teachers to do themselves.
What to Do
First, realize that the “I like it better” people who prefer paper books have a point, but at an increasing cost and some of those costs are unseen. Leaders should ask for differentiation between mere preference and practicality. In some instances, it might be more practical for paper, perhaps when it comes to Pre-K up to second grade where books could be read aloud to small groups and frequently turned to show the pictures and students learning to listen to an adult. Digital books might have an advantage even there if they are projected onto a larger screen so the children in the back get the same effect.
The way to lead is to ask teachers to experience digital books for themselves, for their potential in being widely distributed more easily, and for the enhancements such as audio and translations.
Last, survey for smartphone access. The upside of harnessing smartphone ubiquity may be the savior of long-form reading if schools push for this, embrace and celebrate it.
About the Author
LeiLani Cauthen is CEO of the Learning Counsel, and author of The Consumerization of Learning. She is well-versed in digital content and curriculum change, the adoption process, successful strategies, and helping schools understand what’s available and what will work.