Digital technology has become an imperial force in education, and it should meet more antagonists argues Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein. Clearly he’s among those antagonists. Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he makes a strong case for reading online as a lesser kind of literacy, with profound implications for teaching and learning.
Pointing to the work of Web researcher Jakob Nielsen, who has studied the eye movements of readers, Bauerlein notes that people read online in a physically different pattern than text on a printed page. Online, readers eyes move in a pattern resembling the upper case letter F. ”At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown around the middle of the page,” says Bauerlein. ”Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically, the lower-right corner of the page largely ignored.”
In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and color and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational e-mail messages, and news feeds, Nielsen exclaimed, “‘Reading’ is not even the right word.” The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines, and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the “nut” and nothing else.
In short, online literacy is simply not literacy as we conventionally understand it. “Yes, it’s a kind of literacy,” Baurlein writes, ”but it breaks down in the face of a dense argument, a Modernist poem, a long political tract, and other texts that require steady focus and linear attention — in a word, slow reading. Fast scanning doesn’t foster flexible minds that can adapt to all kinds of texts, and it doesn’t translate into academic reading,” he writes.
Bauerlein is writing from the persepective of a college professor, and he concerns himself with higher education, but his arguments pertain to all classrooms where we are worshipping at the altar of technology. “Given the tidal wave of technology in young people’s lives, let’s frame a number of classrooms and courses as slow-reading (and slow-writing) spaces,” he concludes. “Pencils, blackboards, and books are no longer the primary instruments of learning, true, but they still play a critical role in the formation of intelligence, as countermeasures to information-age mores. That is a new mission for educators parallel to the mad rush to digitize learning, one that may seem reactionary and retrograde, but in fact strives to keep students’ minds open and literacy broad. Students need to decelerate, and they can’t do it by themselves.”
Good, smart stuff from an iconoclastic thinker. Of course, you stopped reading two paragraphs ago.