The use of electronic formats of things we read is on the rise. The population of Americans aged 16 and older who read e-books has grown from 16 percent to 23 percent over the past year. More and more people are now buying e-book readers and tablets. Universities, following this trend of electronic information, are developing ways of replacing the textbook with more interactive ways of learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOCs), which consist of online lectures and homework assignments.

Publishers are following suit by creating digital formats of their products consisting of a mix of text, video and homework assignments. With this tendency towards new ways of learning and reading, are students favoring the digital over the printed word? The answer, according to a new study on “Student Reading Practices in Print and Electronic Media,” might surprise you. According to this study, which followed college students’ reading habits over 12 days, while students tend to choose digital formats for shorter and nonacademic reading, they still prefer print when it comes to longer academic reading.

Students more often directly engaged with a text by highlighting, underlining and taking notes in the margins when reading in print format, and preferred to do their academic reading in this way. While students were also able to engage with texts in electronic formats, which offered some advantages such as search function or links embedded in the text, they also found these to be a distraction. Although digitally formatted textbooks are less expensive than their print counterparts, students often chose to print off portions of the digital reading, adding a new cost that sometimes offsets the costs they originally saved when buying electronically.

For nonacademic reading, however, especially shorter items such as news articles or blog entries, students tended to use digital formats. While print was used for longer, more engaged reading, students reported that they used “skimming” to take in the information when using digital products.

Given these markedly different reading habits, it is possible that the future will not look quite as digital as some textbook companies and universities are imagining. Right now, only 2 percent of textbooks sold in college bookstores are fully digital titles. And it’s likely that students will continue, at least for the time being, to engage with a text in good old-fashioned print.

Did You Know?
Students may still prefer academic reading in print to digital, but more teachers are becoming aware of the benefits to be had in teaching writing and reading using supplemental digital products. According to a study by the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of Advanced Placement (AP) and National Writing Project (NWP) teachers noted that they believe technology (namely social media, the Internet, and even cell phones) have promoted “student creativity and personal expression.” The teachers also believe that these technological formats allow students to share their work with a wider and more diverse audience, encouraging working with others and collaborating on ideas. Although the research showed that students invest more in their writing and projects since the advent of digital technologies, teachers have acknowledged their increased awareness of plagiarism and fair use. It should be noted, however, that the research performed by Pew, although diverse in its coverage geographically and the size and characteristics of the student bodies, the research was skewed toward academically successful students and advanced classrooms. (DYK by Emeli Warren)