In this post, one of our student researchers, Samantha Sharman (Lincoln), offers a short summary of a recent article by Naomi S. Baron on digital technologies, especially reading online, can sometimes undermine learning.

Baron’s article provides an interesting insight into the science behind how we learn, and the difference in knowledge retention when using digital and physical reading materials. As a humanities student, reading a scientific article such as this proved slightly challenging, but extremely informative.

Image depicting a digital book on a bookshelf.
Source: VCG,–Q40sPsa2FW/index.html

The overarching theme of the article is that digital reading is not as effective as reading in print. Comprehension levels are lower when viewing resources digitally, and our ability to recall facts is diminished through being overly reliant on technology. Digital reading is also shown to have negative cognitive effects, with Baron discussing its similarity to the utilisation of GPS; they both result in a reduced usage of the hippocampus. Baron also highlights how ‘ignoring the hippocampus can lead to troubling consequences’, with decline in function being linked with dementia.

One of the elements that I found most interesting was the discussion of student attitudes to physical and digital resources. Baron highlights the results of a study (Baron et al., 2017) which indicates that students generally prefer reading in print: 87% percent of students would choose print reading over digital resources if the cost was the same, and 92% of participants had better concentration when reading physical resources. This preference for print reading is highlighted further through Baron’s mention of other studies, with one (Mizrachi et al., 2018) showing that 82% of participants focus better when engaging with print materials. I had previously assumed that most people preferred digital readings as they are more accessible, so the variety of studies demonstrating the opposite of this was fascinating to read about.

An image juxtaposing print and digital books.
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The article also considers how our reliance on technology is shaping our reading, and that ‘digital works encourage us to use books rather than read them’. I found this fascinating as my instinctive reaction was to consider that this tendency has a positive impact on undertaking research, as in theory simply ‘using’ a book is faster than ‘reading’ and thus the pace of research can be increased. However, given that our comprehension of a text is restricted by simply ‘using’ it, it seems this is a clear adverse effect in terms of research too as the level of understanding is reduced.

Given that the past two years has been dominated by online learning, it will be extremely fascinating to further study the medical effects of reading digitally. As Baron discusses, ‘the consequences of not exercising our hippocampus are palpable’ and it is expected there will be an increase in early onset dementia. Thus, as digital reading does not exercise the hippocampus in the same manner as print reading, and we have spent the past two years online, the long-term effects of this on our brains is a daunting prospect. Not only has pandemic learning impacted our education, but it may be impacting our long-term health too.

Reference: Naomi S. Baron, ‘Know what? How Digital Technologies Undermine Learning and Remembering’, Journal of Pragmatics 175 (2021), 27-37.


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