Tablets vs. textbooks: how do we replace what’s lost?

How does learning from tablets affect cognitive outcomes?

Tablets beat-out traditional textbooks in many ways, but printed books still have the edge when it comes to some cognitive outcomes. How can knowledge design help bridge the gap?

The Navy just started a pilot program to give tablet computers to new recruits at the Recruit Training Command Great Lakes in Illinois. This coincides with similar efforts from the Army, Air Force, and Marines. It seems like the Navy (like many other schools) are using the tablets as e-readers as well as to support standard website access to Navy admin sites and e-learning content. Since computer labs already give recruits access to that online content (although perhaps not as efficiently), it seems like the real newness of the tablets is their use as e-readers and the Recruit Training Command’s corresponding switch from traditional books to e-books. But this raises a few questions about learning outcomes.

I attended a conference recently, where I had an opportunity to talk to an Air Force officer about his experience with tablets. He told me that the maintenance guides on some aircraft have changed from traditional printed manuals to e-books, and since then, he’s noticed that new pilots have trouble locating particular entries in those e-books. The conversation went something like this:

Him: As part of their training, we ask the pilots to look up potential issues in their manuals and then explain what they’d do in a given situation. It takes these pilots five minutes to find the right page on their tablets. When I was a young recruit, I could just flip to the right page, or at least the right section of the book, in five seconds.

Me: So, you think you had a better sense of where the material was in the hard-copy manual, based on its physical position in the book?

Him: Yeah. I think you lose some of that tactile feedback by switching to the e-books.

Is the difference more than anecdote-deep?

“…evidence from laboratory experiments, polls and consumer reports indicates that modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way. In turn, such navigational difficulties may subtly inhibit reading comprehension.”
— Ferris Jabr, Scientific American (2013)
Initial publications seem to support the anecdote about pilots, and Ferris Jabr’s Scientific American (2013) article outlines the evidence and rationale rather nicely. He writes, “[b]oth anecdotally and in published studies, people report that when trying to locate a particular piece of written information they often remember where in the text it appeared. …In contrast, most screens, e-readers, smartphones and tablets interfere with intuitive navigation of a text and inhibit people from mapping the journey in their minds.” Jabr’s article supports this stance with some empirical research that shows e-books don’t facilitate some cognitive outcomes, such as comprehension and navigating to relevant material in the text, as effectively as printed books do.

One reason for these issues is that printed books offer a greater number of contextual stimuli, such as the physical location of content within the context of the whole volume, the heft of the book, the feel of the paper, the sound and motion of turning pages, and even the smell of the ink. Although perhaps not overtly relevant to the content of the book, these secondary stimuli certainly affect our brain’s mental encoding and retrieval of the information (as demonstrated by Godden and Baddeley’s classic study involving underwater divers and memory tasks). The research also highlights other possible issues with e-readers; for instance, they may require more mental resources versus traditional books, and e-readers seem to afford more haphazard browsing/searching of content (versus the more planful use of printed materials).

Can knowledge design help?

I’m a proponent of e-books. They have a lot of added value, e.g., multimedia embeds, automatic content updates, stealth assessment opportunities, and usage analytics. Combined with the cost savings of e-books (and all of the other benefits gained from the tablets, in general), using e-readers/tablets versus printed books is a no-brainer. Still, I worry about what might be lost, from a cognitive perspective, by switching from physical, printed books to digital, electronic versions. And more importantly, what can we do from a Knowledge Design perspective to help compensate for the change?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that we cling to paper-based materials or necessarily strive to design tablets that feel and smell more like books. As Jabr eloquently writes, “…why, one could ask, are we working so hard to make reading with new technologies like tablets and e-readers so similar to the experience of reading on the very ancient technology that is paper? Why not keep paper and evolve screen-based reading into something else entirely?” I completely agree. So rather than try to replicate the book context, how we could better design the e-reader content to support the desired cognitive processes. That is, what sort of Knowledge Design interventions could help mitigate issues related to (1) lack of contextual stimuli, (2) drain of cognitive resources, and (3) readers’ tendencies to jump around e-book content versus applying metacognitive planning. Although I don’t have the answers today, I think those are three areas where Knowledge Design could really make an impact.