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They Told Me I Had to Read Digitally; I Said No, No, Not So Fast (with apologies to Amy Winehouse)

Recently, I attended a meeting at the offices of one of New York's premier law firms. I was ushered to the top floor of a skyscraper in Manhattan. The floor was filled with conference rooms, all of them with extraordinary views of Midtown. When I commented on how impressive the space was, my host informed that this was the former location of the law library of the firm. He explained that with the advances in technology a physical library was deemed no longer necessary. In current planning for the construction of new schools, there is invariably a discussion about the necessity of dedicating valuable space for a school library. Kindle, Nook, and other digital reading devices are touted as the inevitable replacements of old fashion books. Many schools are providing students, including very young elementary students, with iPads and laptops. Ubiquitous reports in the media chronicling the exponential growth of digital reading make it seem that any forward thinking educator would have to embrace the new reading technologies. In fact, encouragement is not just coming from media and technology companies, but from the federal government as well. Speaking at a recent conference (2013), Richard Culatta, Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the United States Department of Education, pointedly asked school officials, "How can we leverage tools and technology to completely reimagine, rethink and redesign learning?" While I am not sure that "reimagine" is actually a word, there is nonetheless an Orwellian tone to it and to "redesigning learning." While none of this is particularly surprising, coming as it does from a technologist, it does scream out for caution and closer examination by parents, educators and cognitive scientists.

Research conducted by the National Literacy Trust (2013) reveals that "39% of children and young people read daily using electronic devises including tablets and eReaders, but only 28% read printed materials daily. The number of children reading eBooks has doubled in the last two years (from 6% to 12%)." Despite the enthusiastic reception that reading technology has received, there are ample reasons to pause and look more closely at this phenomenon, especially the use of digital reading in schools and particularly with young students.

In addition to verifying the increased use of digital reading, the research of the National Literacy Trust also examined the effect of technology on students' reading abilities and their enjoyment of reading. Their findings are worth noting: "... those who read daily only on-screen are nearly twice less likely to be above average readers than those who read daily in print or in print and on-screen (15.5% vs. 26%). Those who read only on-screen are also three times less likely to enjoy reading very much (12% vs. 51%)." In the April, 2013 edition of Scientific American, Ferris Jabr reports that, "Before 1992 most studies concluded that people read slower, less accurately and less comprehensively on screens than on paper. Studies published since the early 1990s, however, have produced more inconsistent results: a slight majority has confirmed earlier conclusions, but almost as many have found few significant differences in reading speed or comprehension between paper and screens." These results provide further support for concerns that Maryanne Wolf and her colleagues raised in their article, "The Importance of Deep Reading" (2009). While recognizing the remarkable capability of digital media to provide "... efficient, massive information processing; flexible multitasking; quick, interactive modes of communication...", they also question how well suited digital reading is for deep reading which they define as "... the array of sophisticated processes that propel comprehension and that include inferential and deductive reasoning, analogical skills, critical analysis, reflection and insight." These are the high order thinking skills that correlate closely with academic success.

In addition to these concerns, huge investments in technology have failed to produce the kind of academic improvements that were envisioned by many pundits. Over the last several decades, American schools have spent ever increasing sums on technology, yet reading and math scores on standardized tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) have remained dismal. While many factors could contribute to this stubbornly poor performance; there are too many concrete examples of the failure of technology to produce anticipated gains in student achievement to continue blindly investing in it. In a September 2011 article, The New York Timesreported that a 2005 investment of $33 million in technology by the Kyrene School District in Arizona failed to produce hoped for results. Between 2005 and 2011 reading and math scores stagnated in Kyrene while statewide scores rose. In the same article, Stanford education professor, Larry Cuban, states that the research does not support these kinds of outsized investments in technology. While other studies have found positive effects of technology for specific uses such as social interaction/communication and entertainment/exploration, research on the effect of technology on student academic outcomes has yet to demonstrate that it has a significant influence on academic performance.

It is worth noting that many Silicon Valley executives send their own children to decidedly low tech schools. A 2011 New York Times article, "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute," reported the popularity among Silicon Valley technocrats of schools that do not ascribe to the use of technology for elementary students. Alarmingly, schools like these have more and more become outliers despite the lack of research to support the massive infusion of technology into our schools. While digital media and educational technology hold great promise, teachers and parents need to question the hype of technophiles and rely more on solid research from educators and cognitive scientists. This approach maybe too slow for some, but the expenditure of scarce resources (instructional time and money) and the education of our students, especially our youngest ones, demand a careful and reasoned approach to the widespread use of technology in our schools.

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