Net educational Systems

Digital Reading is Hurting our Educational System and Economy

digital reading hurts comprehensionThere’s still some uncertainty in the research, but several studies have found that digital reading impedes understanding for both fiction and nonfiction reading and in both students and professionals. So from what we can tell, when people read on paper they think better—there’s an improvement in retention, overall problem solving, and understanding of what’s going on in the text.

Yet despite these findings and people’s seeming preference to read on paper, digital reading is on the rise. We see this very clearly for K-12 students, but it is also a growing trend for general reading and in commercial contexts. Why? Because the short term incentives to read in digital are huge. The upfront cost of the materials is often lower, the environmental impact seemingly lessened, the physical heft largely gone, and integration with our digital information ecosystem closer to seamless.

And this is why the situation is so alarming. The shift to digital reading despite its flaws isn’t an anomaly that will self-correct in a few months. For most of us, our incentive structures lead those short-term advantages of digital reading to be very persuasive, and in some cases decisive. And if these short term advantages become the deciding factors that lead professionals, students, schools, enterprises, etc. to read on computers even though their comprehension of the text is compromised, then manufacturers and developers will tend to compete on the battleground of short term advantages—digital. Thus, reinforcing the problem in a vicious cycle.

Technology companies have been incentivized by consumer’s behavior to optimize products for convenience or cost and typically not comprehension and actionability.

If this continues to happen, what impact will it have? Let’s first think about our education system—a major aspect of which is reading comprehension. If the ability to understand prose is hindered in the way the studies suggest, we’re systematically disadvantaging a generation of students who are going to have to assimilate more information faster than any generation in history, and then go compete in a global talent-pool.

Things get worse when we expand our focus to the larger economy. Writing has historically been crucial for our economic activity (it’s thought to have emerged to facilitate commerce in Mesopotamia), and nothing has changed. As we transitioned from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the complexity and the volume of information we needed to assimilate in order to describe our economy grew vastly.

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