As part of his role as a student researcher on the Active Online Reading project, Stefan Szablewski, a third year studying History at the University of Nottingham examined responses to our survey from staff and students that explored the challenges of reading. Here’s his summary of what he discovered.

Reading online at university is something relatively novel and has increased significantly since the pandemic. It isn’t without its challenges, and the best way to gauge what these are is by asking students and staff for their opinions. My analysis of their responses to our survey is summarised in what follows.

The challenge perhaps most frequently noted, especially by students, was how physically challenging reading online actually is. Students emphasised that using a laptop to read for more than a few hours a day can cause stabbing headaches, spinal petrification and aching eyeballs. The longer-term implications on our health arising from such prolonged concentration on small, brightly lit rectangles are not yet known.

British Library digitised image from page 108 of "Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses"
British Library digitised image from page 108 of “Thrilling Life Stories for the Masses” (online here)

The physical impact of engaging with digital texts by no means diminishes the significance of another dimension of online reading – distraction – which was mentioned by many academics and students who responded to our survey When reading on an electronic device, vast swathes of the world wide web are a click away. Some academics express cynicism about how easily undergraduates are stymied by this. However, the vast majority of young people’s lives are lived through online mediums – social media, YouTube, news-apps. Divorcing oneself from focused academic reading on the same device used to structure and give meaning to much of one’s life is difficult. And, more often than not, the seemingly simple fix of ‘downloading and reading offline’ is impossible because may online reading platforms require continuous connection.

How online reading is accessed in the first place was another challenge raised by  students and staff alike, which is related to ‘digital poverty’. Lightning-quick as on-campus wi-fi can be, many students have mediocre internet connections at home and/or in their student digs. Pages don’t load, and readings disappear from screens without trace when connections drop. Few students have tablets and styluses with which to annotate texts directly. A large proportion of student responses also alluded to the very practical challenge of struggling to interact with texts. The highlighting, circling, underlining and general annotating which is so straightforward on paper can be difficult to replicate when reading online. Yes, some platforms do allow the user to annotate, but often with curmudgeonly resistance at best – it’s difficult to deploy the cursor in a pen-like fashion!

Whilst student responses generally focused on the practical challenges of online reading, these were symptomatic of a single broader issue, which many academics also stressed – a general lack of understanding of the texts that are so essential to university level study. This lack of understanding may be part of a much broader problem with academic study at university whereby students, for whatever reason (consumerist attitudes, lack of time or necessary skills), might be seduced into adopting passive attitudes towards learning, and therefore reading.

First year students seem to have experienced additional challenges to those who were further on in their studies and this may help to explain the previous point about the challenge of understanding texts. An issue that was raised frequently by first-years was not knowing where to look to find content or knowing what content to trust. This is interesting, in that it is a concern less with regards to online reading, and more about acquiring the information literacy competencies necessary for university-level study. The step-up from school to higher education, including the ability to work independently is clearly an issue that extends beyond the realm of online reading. However, this illustrates that first-year students challenges with reading are closely related with the development of a whole host of other skills, knowledge and dispositions.

While it may seem that this whizz through our survey data on ‘challenges’ is a little gloomy, developing a proper understanding of the prevailing issues from ‘the ground up’ is an essential step in seeking constructive ways forward. These are explored in some of the posts by my fellow student researchers!

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