This last academic year, I’ve had the pleasure of working with a Faculty Learning Community at work, in which we looked at digital vs. print reading and what we could do as educators to support readers of all kinds on campus. The following is something I wrote to support our final written report / article. For more on our project, visit http://teaching.btc.ctc.edu/readingonline
Reading online poses challenges and opportunities for eLearning professionals, just like their colleagues in Library and Instruction. From an eLearning perspective, the strategies used to support reading on digital devices focus on two areas: supporting all readers in managing their digital texts and supporting instructors through professional development to ensure content is easy for their students to read.
Managing Digital Texts
When it comes to reading, we all have the experiences of holding a book in our hands, turning a page, placing bookmarks and making notes, whether it be on sticky notes or on the page itself. With digital text materials the ways in which we interact with text are quite different.
The biggest difference between digital and print texts are that typically there are less distractions on printed text materials. Novels and books just have words, with the occasional chart or illustration and magazines have images, but an easy to read layout that focuses on the text. In both instances, readers are given the opportunity to engage more with the text than any pictorial content, and this encourages deep reading and reflection on the concepts and ideas in the text. Digital reading, on the other hand typically has way more distractions surrounding the text. Ads, links to other articles, pictures, videos and other content serve as attention detractors, not allowing the same opportunity for deep, meaningful reading experiences we are afforded in print.
Unlike print text, though, we are more in control of how our digital text appears to us than we are with our print materials. With digital texts, especially texts on the web, including news articles, blog posts, and long-form analysis papers, we are able to change how they look to suit us, something many readers may be unaware of.
Clean Reading is a term that is used to describe our ability to remove the aforementioned distractions to clean up a website so that we can read it easier and give it the time and attention we’d like. But how is this accomplished. A few years ago, the most low-tech way of removing distractions was to find the ‘print mode’ on a website. Sometimes this was (and still is) embedded in the site, or you can simply click ‘print’ in your browser to see the print only version. This strips out all sidebars and ads, only focusing on the content. Nowadays we have a few more options.
Online Note-taking app, Evernote, as a browser plugin called ‘Clearly’ (available on the chrome extension store), which does just this. Install the extension, click the button and immediately, you’re presented with a distraction free version of the post you are reading.
Some browsers are beginning to add this feature by default as well. Safari, Apple’s web browser, has a feature called ‘Reading List’ that allows you to collect and cleanly read anything on the web. This aspect of collection is gaining traction in online reading as well. Apps such as Readability, Instapaper and Paper focus on managing collections of online reading, specifically to read later and even store offline. When you find something you want to read, these apps allow you to save these articles to the app, tag them with categories so that you can organize them and read them later. When you do get back to them, your articles are presented in a distraction-free, almost novel or magazine-like reading format, making it easier to engage and concentrate on.
As these apps focus on managing content it then becomes easier to share them with friends and family. Most have built in tools to share and comment on your articles through the app itself, through email or social networking.
Annotating Digital Texts
Another vastly improved area in digital texts is the ability to annotate them. While we will never get the same feeling as writing all over our textbooks on a digital screen, we’re getting closer. While we’ve been able to annotate PDFs and Word documents on our desktop computers for years, it was always a very clunk experience. With the advent of iPads, Surfaces and other touch-based devices, we are able again to ‘write in the margins’ of our documents. Apps like Acrobat Reader, Notability, Microsoft OneNote and many others have improved our ability to annotate documents by leaps and bounds, giving us the ability to use a stylus and draw, circle, write notes and even place sticky notes and audio notes, as well. Some browsers are even starting to add annotation tools, so that readers and markup websites. While these experiences may not be a seamless and easy to start as just using a pencil on paper, the improvements we’ve seen over the last five years show all readers and students that we’re getting closer to an easier digital solution.
eLearning departments are always working with faculty and other on-campus stakeholders to find the best technology-based solutions to instructional problems. Just like in the 2000s, when everyone was excited about buzzwords like ‘podcast’ without an understanding of what they actually are, many publishers are now taking advantage of this excitement and advertising ‘ebooks’ as part of their offerings, which has become problematic for students.
While the term ‘ebook’ simply refers to any electronic book, there is a standard group of formats that make true ebooks different than say a blog post, or a structured web site. While this definition may change in the future, eBooks are actual files that are downloaded to a dedicated ereading device such as a Kindle or Nook, or a dedicated ereading app on a tablet. These files allow for text size manipulation, highlighting, bookmarking, accessibility features and other more traditional ‘book’ related features. What makes these ebooks is their standardization, coming in formats such as ePUB or Mobi, which will work on many different devices, with the same options.
The problem we now have is that many of the supposed ‘ebooks’ that publishers sell do not conform to these standards and cannot be loaded onto a device, due to digital rights management (DRM) and the desire to protect their copyright and therefore profits. Instead, these books are in the form of websites, containing a structured hierarchy of web-pages, which many times are based on legacy technologies such as Adobe Flash. They sometimes aren’t accessible and may not load on a tablet or ereader.
In selecting textbooks and other materials for students, instructors and eLearning professionals should be aware of this misbranding of digital materials, and seek to provide their students with materials that work on chosen devices, not tethered to a desktop computer.
The last aspect of digital reading eLearning professionals can support is instructional design and the design of digital reading materials created by instructors. Modern Learning Management Systems (LMS), such as Blackboard, Canvas, Moodle, Sakai, etc., instructors have a lot of control over what their digital readings can look like. Supporting instructors in creating materials that are both easy to read, distraction free and accessible are paramount to promoting great digital reading experiences for students.
First, digital text should be set up in a hierarchy, with easily scannable headings (use header tags in HTML as a best practice), spacing and simple fonts. Basically, the instructor should be attempting to replicate other easy reading experiences they’ve seen on the web. If their content looks like a website from the early 1990s, eLearning might want to step in and make some suggestions for improvement.
When creating standard documents such as PDFs and Word documents, the same concepts apply while adding the affordance of annotation through the aforementioned apps.
Overall, reading online can be an easy, enjoyable and enriching experience. Though it is still going through some growing pains, readers still need to put in some work to find a solution that they are both comfortable with and that is easily accessible to them. With eLearning departments focusing on helping everyone read distraction free, and supporting faculty in their selection and creation of digital materials, all readers on campus will benefit from these interventions.