Finding Middle Ground in the Reading Debate

It seems I’ve been reading a lot about reading lately.  A recent article in the Chronicle has prompted several bloggers to consider what reading means in the 21st century.   Will Richardson reflected on his own reading practices and what educators should be doing to foster online literacy.   Sean Sharp thought about what online reading practices mean for online writing practices.

Mark Bauerline, the author of the Chronicle article, is not fan of the digital age.  He is the author of The Dumbest Generation:  How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).  I haven’t read the book and I’m not sure I will since at this point in my learning I am looking for arguments from the center.  Plus, I think we can get a good sense of what he believes from his article in the Chronicle.

Here’s the crux of his argument in one sentence: “We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning.”  Bauerline sees himself and others as the “stewards of literacy” who must protect students from themselves by providing them with rigorous reading experiences.  (Even as I write that sentence, I’m picturing the student in one of Michael Wesch’s videos holding up a sign indicating that students simply don’t do the assigned reading.)

I have not found such a conspiracy in my own life.  Web-based reading has expanded my practice rather than changing it.  I continue to read books, both fiction and nonfiction, while like Richardson, I have transferred almost all my more temporal reading such as news and correspondence to the web.  My “books” have changed a bit since I purchased my Kindle.  But my practice is similar whether I’m reading an online text, a Kindle text, or an old-fashioned book. Particularly in terms of non-fiction, I always have a pencil in my hand.  The Kindle and Diigo come with a digital pencil in the form of their highlighting and annotation tools.   And, for Daniel Schon’s book that I just started reading last night, I’ve got a Ticonderoga along with a pack of sticky notes tucked into the front cover.  I do find a growing preference for digital reading as it is easier to search my highlights and annotations.  But there is something worthwhile in paging through an analog book, reviewing what I underlined or annotated.  In the hunt for a particular quote, I often find other useful comments.

The pragmatist in me is looking for common ground in this conversation.  Bauerlein points to it in his article when he quotes Jakob Neilsen, a Web researcher who has written extensively on web-based reading habits.  Nielsen says,

I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes. I just don’t believe the Web is optimal for delivering this experience. Instead, let’s praise old narrative forms like books and sitting around a flickering campfire — or its modern-day counterpart, the PowerPoint projector. We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets — so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts.

There is a place for multiple kinds of reading in multiple kind of formats and our job as educators is to help students practice with all those different types.

2 thoughts on “Finding Middle Ground in the Reading Debate

  1. I see a bit of a problem in the quote you left us from Mr. Bauerline.

    > I continue to believe in the linear, author-driven narrative for educational purposes.

    He can believe all he likes. Kids today, typically, complain if you give them too much to read, and they hate to write too much. Papers, paragraphs, argh!

    They’ll create, however, a 15 minute video. And they enjoy trying to circumvent filters to get at online video.

    So, the problem I see is this: Are “traditional” books, presented in a “author driven narrative,” “linear” the only way to learn?

    Well, those books are a way to learn. For better or worse, we now have more types of media available. And, as I’ve suggested, many of these newer types (many of them moving with sound) are far more palatable to our current generation of “screenagers.”

    And while the author suggests all types of media might have their place, the Web (as a medium or as conductor of this medium) is some how ill-prepared for education because it’s just quick jolts of information? He suggests there isn’t depth, just narrow nuggets.

    I’m sorry to admit I don’t believe books are a great way to learn. I think we learn from other people and experiences. For as much I have erred in lecturing at times, I’m a constructivist at heart and while books have their place, I’m not sure I agree that they alone have something above the Web.

    I do see handicaps in the way the Web current works but wouldn’t say it’s the “Web’s fault” for scanning and skimming. It’s in the devices we read on, it’s the ergonomics of looking into a laptop screen, and it’s the distraction of buttons, links, and blinking ads that surround content. The Web, however, is far more flexible than the author of that article is willing to make it out to be.

    I’d much rather being calling for better design that’s humanist, classroom-friendly, and continues to push the features available in a book. Karen, you mentioned the Kindle, and it’s one progression. But I’m also interested in where this technology is taking us. Is Bauerline just too sentimental for a book? Recently, I saw some of the research Xerox PARC was working on that presents a new idea for book-reading: a digital display puts one single word in the center of a screen. You read by not moving your head; instead, the text moves. I found the experience enjoyable. I could read much faster, and I was less fatigued.

    But what of the podcast? The Audible-books? I’m all out for ditching opinion at this point and testing our own evolution of media to determine what actually allows us to communicate the most efficiently, emotionally, and the most clearly.

    My experience here is that this very webpage, Karen’s blog, and its comments, and the pasted-text from Bauerline’s article, and the metadata around it (including links)… my participation in a discussion, despite the small “soundbite” of Bauerline’s quote… is far richer than reading alone what he had to say. And I think that’s what he’s likely arguing about — richness – in education. For me, the Web-based experience is among the more rich mediums or delivery-vehicles ever invented.

  2. First, I’ll admit, John, that I am one of those who are sentimental for books. But I agree with you that we need to look to the future and how technology can facilitate learning. I thought about mentioning audio books as they are becoming a bigger part of my own “reading” and I wonder if there are any teachers who are allowing students to use that format to count for reading.

    Mostly, I am trying not to place one form of media or even one form of learning over another. And, I agree that we learn from other people and experiences. Don’t forget…books are written by people so as I read I am learning from that person and from my own experiences that I bring to the book (or article, or podcast, etc. etc.) Then, as you point out, I can write about it online and through conversation with others (including sometimes the writer) further my own ideas and understanding. But, I’m reminded that it was a shared reading experience that led to this conversation.

    I think the main thing we need to think about is how we define reading and writing in this digital age. We can read a film and a podcast. We can write a blog post and a video. There are some shared skills for those types of reading and writing but there are also some unique skills as well. It’s important that we are providing the wide range of reading and writing experiences in our classrooms and that’s probably the biggest challenge for teachers who themselves only experienced analog, text-based learning.

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