This article appeared in the Washington Post on February 22nd 2015 : “Why digital natives prefer reading in print“
The link was posted on the NZ School Librarian ListServ today and predictably due swift responses affirming a preference for print over digital.
I sighed loudly. I thought and fumed a bit.
I sighed again as I considered replying to the thread on the ListServ.
The bee in my bonnet? I get very frustrated when librarians appear to gleefully seize upon any article or piece of ‘research’ that ‘proves’ that print is winning the ‘war’ against digital. Why is it a war or even a battle? Why do some librarians see the future as print OR digital, rather than print AND digital?
What upsets me is not so much whether the opinion expressed in the article is right or wrong (or some shade of grey in between), but the attitude to the adoption and acceptance of new digital forms by my librarian peers. They use any article like this one as validation for their choice not to introduce digital formats or a reason to continually justify their reluctance to do so.
My opinion: We are not preparing students for the same world many of us grew up in, or are living in now.
Regardless of whether individuals prefer print or digital for reading for pleasure, they need to learn how to synthesise and comprehend any information presented digitally for research purposes. The reality is that even in a school library with a predominantly print based collection (no matter how comprehensive and up-to-date), sometimes the best information on a topic will be online.
I also read this local article today and two snippets provided me with food for thought:
“The average Kiwi teacher is a woman in her early fifties. She’s facing a generation of kids she wasn’t trained to teach who have grown up with Wi-Fi, the cloud and hand-held technology”….
“The full impact of digital kids was expected to hit over the next couple of years, as a critical mass of children now under 10 floods the education system”.
I wonder if the average school librarian is of similar age? Given I am a woman in my early fifties I am prepared to say that age and gender is no indicator of mindset and rate of technological adoption. I have met so many incredible teachers and librarians via social media and conferences that have an incredibly open mind about the use of technology, adapting to change and being motivated self/life-long-learners.
If I ever hear a teacher tell a student, who is happily reading an ebook, that she wants them to choose a ‘real’ book instead, I blanch. An ebook is a ‘real’ book – it’s just in a different format. For some students that difference in format can be a game changer. I have seen a number of struggling students become readers, by using technology where they get to control the text size, font type and background page colour and use an inbuilt dictionary or enable text to speech features for words they don’t recognise or understand. When I hear librarians justifying their decisions to not introduce ebooks into their collection, or doing it very reluctantly, because of their own preference for reading and researching in print, then I also blanch.
Students accessing a multiple user, recently published, non-fiction ebook access the same text as their peers (they haven’t missed out because another student checked out the best book first or because the Library only owns one copy). Every student in a class or year level can access the same material. For differentiated learning they can make use of the different text types and images in the text exactly the same way they do using the print edition or they can choose a lower or higher level book on the same topic from a group of ebooks curated along with other resources related to their inquiry issue. They can also highlight and take notes in their own words (but not cut and paste like they could with a website), store their notes in a personal notebook and immediately add the resource they are using to a bibliography or prepare a citation.
My opinion: Reading digitally is a skill that needs to be learned like any other literacy.
Our own preference for print and/or the problems some of us have coping with electronic text should not be used as a yardstick to gauge whether or not we allow students ready and easy access to non-print formats. Our own biases towards print should also not prevent us from teaching students to be effective users of information in all formats. We are doing our students a major disservice if we do not prepare them for a world where most of the research they do in the workforce will be digital. I feel it’s part of my role (and should be for every other future focussed Librarian and teacher that young learners encounter) to enable them to be future ready and to be able to navigate text and visual information wherever they find it and in whatever format. Don’t we want our learners to apply all the critical skills they have learnt about identifying and using appropriate, authoritative and relevant sources to whatever they are accessing or reading? Does it really matter if the information source students use is print or digital as long as they can use both equally well?
‘The digital natives’ referred to in the Washington Post article are predominantly college (university) students, and although this group grew up with computers and more recently easily adopted mobile devices, many of them have not had the same exposure to extensive and ‘every-day’ use of ebooks, ejournals, and websites for research, until they got to senior high school or university, that younger kids are used to using right now, today.
Many students in the younger years in primary schools right across New Zealand are already using more technology than the ‘digital natives’ portrayed in the article did at the same age during their years at school. We have students in Year 1 who use a combination of non-fiction print and ebooks for inquiry and then pick from a variety of digital tools to present their learning. Our students from Year 3 up, are writing their own blogs and reading and commenting on the learning reflections of their peers. All of these students still have ready access to a wide selection of print resources and they have a choice of format for their recreational reading as well. There is a noticeable difference in the levels of ebook use for reading for pleasure between our youngest students and those at the higher end of the school. As these younger students grow with their devices and acceptance of digital forms I expect the numbers reading ebooks at different year levels in future years to change significantly.
The reality is that I can get more books into more hands if I use a combination of print and digital format than I could if we used print alone. Students have the convenience of accessing books (not just websites and YouTube videos) from anywhere at anytime (and not only when the library is open during school hours). Our students are learning to be ‘ambidextrous’ and switch between formats and to handle a variety of text styles and layouts. It’s really important for the success of our students that we provide them with great quality, current, authoritative resources. For some topics there may be more material available in one format over another. Publishing and content availability is in transition and it is is almost impossible to predict what resources students and workers will be using in the future. I doubt very much that they will only be using print.
Whether or not I love to read ebooks, or if I struggle with online forms, or even if I swoon at the smell of a paper book… none of these things should have any bearing on the level of encouragement and support I give to young readers and learners to make the best use of the resources they need to learn to use so that they will thrive in their future.