Monday, January 5, 2009

Online reading is different

Jakob Nielsen is a Web researcher who has been investigating the user habits and screen experiences of readers when they are working online. He has used a variety of techniques including charting online navigation, and eye-tracking tools to map how attention shifts and where the eyes fixate. He has drawn a number of conclusions. I'll outline these, then offer my own comments.

What Nielsen claims

In a study of 232 people Nielsen found that people took in hundreds of pages in a scanning pattern that is different from traditional print-based reading. He suggests that the eye movements on a screen form a pattern that looks like a capital letter F. At the top of the screen the reader is reading all the way across, but the pattern changes as they proceed downwards. He observed that their descent quickened and horizontal scanning contracted, with a slowdown around the middle of the page. At the bottom he found that the eyes moved almost vertically with the lower-right corner of the page being largely ignored (i.e. they weren't looking at much). This might seem unremarkable but traditionally eye tracking research on pages of print suggests that readers actually scan every word and can fixate more than once on a word. The extent of the fixations is contested but most agree that the eyes track a great deal of the print on any page. While not the first person to suggest different patterns of fixations for online reading, Nielsen is suggesting that something different might be going on when reading on screen; well, that's Nielsen's claim.

As well his research suggested that:
  • Only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence, finding key words, bullet points, images as well as fixating on colour and typeface variations.
  • When reading e-newsletters, e-mail messages and news feeds, Nielsen found that readers usually read only the first two words in headlines, and largely ignored the introductory sections.
  • Nielsen suggests based on this research that teenagers "have a short attention span and want to be stimulated. That's also why they leave sites that are difficult to figure out." Generally, he found that teenagers didn’t want to do much (of what I'd call) 'close' reading online, Nielsen felt they were searching for other things.
In commenting on such observations Nielsen suggests that the huge investment in technology for schools may have been wasted, with little evidence of any improvements in literacy and learning. He argues that there are "no statistically significant effects of immersion in the first year on either reading or mathematics achievement." In other words, he is claiming that the millions of dollars being spent in schools on technology might not help the ability to read text.

In light of his research Nielsen suggests that online reading is a type of ‘reading’ but that it fails when the reader is confronted with a dense argument, and in fact that any difficult text requires steady focus and linear attention, that is slow reading.

He goes further and argues that fast scanning doesn't foster flexible and adaptive minds capable of handling varied types of text. He supports his arguments by trying to link what he sees as poor college literacy levels at American universities with increased online reading. I don't have space to contest the latter, but I think he weakens his argument with such claims that are hard to test.

Professor Mark Bauerlein (who also has an interest in this area) in reviewing Nielsen’s work suggests that we need to determine the relative effects of reading different genres.

“We need to 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. The inclination to read a huge Victorian novel, the capacity to untangle a metaphor in a line of verse, the desire to study and emulate a distant historical figure, the urge to ponder a concept such as Heidegger's ontic-ontological difference over and over and around and around until it breaks through as a transformative insight — those dispositions melt away with every 100 hours of browsing, blogging, IMing, Twittering, and Facebooking.”

The overall argument is that online reading is different. Nielsen suggests that:

"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."

My views on this topic

While I'm unsure about some of Nielsen's findings, I do share some of his concerns. I have written elsewhere about the many assumptions that have been made about the revolutionary benefits of online web-based learning to transform the way we learn. I have also commented on the special impact that narrative text has on children's learning (see a previous paper here) and my concern that the Internet could be a threat to the key place of narrative in our lives. But, where I differ from Nielsen and Bauerlein is that while I agree that online reading practices are different from print-based reading, I see the basis of this, as well as the implications, somewhat differently.

In my previous post on new technology and communication, I discussed in detail my view that the Internet offers great possibilities as well as a few dangers. In this post I want to comment on just one of the points I made in the previous post:

"....the extent to which the spoken or written word has been supplemented, replaced or changed by images, video and film, and even led to new representational forms....".

While I'm a great believer in the value of the Internet, the over-use of screen-based 'reading' via the Internet has the potential to change the type of texts that people read. Some will argue that this is a good thing (e.g. Clay Shirky), that the Internet is the ultimate vehicle for pluralism and a way to empower people not limit them, to offer new ways to learn and communicate. This is true of course, but there is a potential downside and this is where I agree with Nielsen and Bauerlein (at least in part), there is great value in 'close' reading of texts of substance, and a danger if this is lost. Some like Clay Shirky suggest that this isn't happening, but there is evidence that it is. As Trevor Butterworth comments in response to an online interview with Shirky:

"......all the various surveys of literacy undertaken in the U.S. (and also reflected elsewhere in the English-speaking world) point towards not just systematic sub-literacy (93 million Americans with basic or below basic literacy skills) but accelerating a-literacy, which is to say - the ability to read but the decision not to - and diminishing information skills. And the inescapable correlation is that this is a product of the rise of the Internet..."

However, I don't want to blame the Internet for leading readers away from 'close' reading. This is my point of departure from many who focus only on the dangers of the Web; it's what we do with the web that counts. What is critical is how parents and teachers support children as they encounter and use the Internet. The real challenge of the Internet is that its use both reflects the busy pace of life, while in turn influencing the pace with which we process information and the way we communicate (see my previous post on loss of family time here). There is a real danger that we will read less texts that are rich in language and content and will rely instead on emails, text messages, tweets and so on.

The potential for this to happen is very evident; look simply at how our reading of the news has changed. Most people now read daily newspapers (with its increasingly tabloid focus) in the cracks of their days (often at work when probably they should be doing other things). Quality news based on in-depth research is now in danger of disappearing (certainly in the form that we once knew it). I can sense this even in my own writing and scholarship. If in the next three years I only write blog posts without the rigour of scholarship that is required to publish a paper in one of the world's great research journals, then I'm sure that I'll have much less to say. Even blogging can have a negative impact because as a medium for communication it has a limiting tendency. Blog posts need to be shorter (I often fail this test), punchier, more colloquial in language form, and inevitably need to use less primary source material. Even when evidence is presented from other sources, it is often limited to web-based resources. But to stay with blogging (as an example), this must be assessed against the obvious advantages. Via my blogs I can share the outcomes of my own scholarship and research as well as my critique of other research with ease. Balance, that's what we need!

What are the implications of what I'm saying about Nielsen's research?

There are lots of issues that we could explore but here are 7 suggestions for parents and teachers:
1. Don't allow literature to be lost as one of the most important literary genres; nothing can replace the potential that literature has to inform, teach, amuse, enrich our language and knowledge, and draw us together as we share common stories and so on.
2. Recognise that the Internet is an incredible resource for gaining and sharing information, but don't assume that it is a perfectly reliable source of knowledge. What one reads on the Internet must be assessed, critiqued and tested just like any other source of information. See my previous post on 'Truth and the Internet' here.
3. Apply as much attention to encouraging children to read widely and 'closely' from varied genres, and across varied literary traditions as we do with books and other resources for learning.
4. Teachers, avoid the temptation to make school simply reflective of the world; that's why public schools were started, to offer children what they couldn't easily get outside school. It may be that schools (in a short time) will become the only place that children will be introduced to the great literature of the past and even the present, and helped to learn how to critique what they read and make judgments between truth and fiction. Or perhaps, it will be at school where children will learn to be more critical readers of the Internet.
5. Parents model wide and close reading in your own life. Read and write yourselves! As well, share the joys and challenges of your own reading (in print and online forms) with your children.
6. Teachers and parents, should not simply accept that multimodality is the new norm, the only way to read. Yes, being able to simultaneously read words, view images and hear sounds has great potential for new forms of learning and expression, but as Nielsen's research shows, it changes the way we read (and write). If this is the only type of reading and the only type of reader purpose that we experience, then we will all be impoverished as a result.
7. Teachers and parents try to find ways to encourage your children to be discerning readers, writers and learners who know how to use the Internet to learn, while still maintaining a love of language and a rich knowledge of textual forms.
In conclusion, let me stress that the research of Nielsen, Bauerlein and others is important, but let's avoid trying to blame the Internet for things which are not the fault of this great resource (notwithstanding its problems and weaknesses). Instead, let's ensure that the Internet develops as an even more effective tool and ensure that our children learn to use it for their benefit.

Other links

The above comments have been motivated by an article written by Professor Mark Bauerlein in the Chronicle of Higher Education. You can read the article 'Online Literacy Is a Lesser Kind' here.

My earlier post on Writing Communication and technology (click here).

Youths today read quickly but that doesn't mean they're reading well, Michael Duffy, Sydney Morning Herald, 20th December, 2008 (here). This article also draws on the work of Mark Bauerlein and relates it to his daughter's recent high school education.

For an alternative more positive view of technology (my bit for balanced debate) you might read Russ Juskalian's interview with Clay Shirky in the Columbia Journalism Review (here).


Prue said...

I find when I read online (or even just on a computer screen not online) I gloss over an awful lot. I find I miss mistakes in a Word document on screen which I pick up when I print out the same document. I always edited my uni work in hard copy.

byron smith said...

Your post looked interesting at the start, but was too long so I only skimmed after the first few paragraphs.

Trevor Cairney said...

Thanks for your comment Prue.

Very funny Byron! If you'd engaged in 'close' reading, rather than the superficial stuff that Nielsen and Bauerlein are talking about you would have seen this bit:
While I'm a great believer in the value of the Internet, the over-use of screen-based 'reading' via the Internet has the potential to change the type of texts that people read. Some will argue that this is a good thing (e.g. Clay Shirky), that the Internet is the ultimate vehicle for pluralism and a way to empower people not limit them, to offer new ways to learn and communicate. This is true of course, but there is a potential downside and this is where I agree with Nielsen and Bauerlein (at least in part), there is great value in 'close' reading of texts of substance, and a danger if this is lost.
Hope you get to the end of the comment. Trevor