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Learning from Paper, Learning from Screens:

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Abstract

Electronic screens on laptop and tablet computers are being used for reading text, often while multitasking. Two experimental studies with college students explored the effect of medium and opportunities to multitask on reading Study 1 and report writing Study 2. In Study 1, participants N = 120 read an easy and difficult passage on paper, a laptop, or tablet, while either multitasking or not multitasking. Neither multitasking nor medium impacted reading comprehension, but those who multitasked took longer to read both passages, indicating loss of efficiency with multitasking. In Study 2, participants N = 67 were asked to synthesize source material in multiple texts to write a one-page evidence-based report. Participants read the source texts either on 1 paper, 2 computer screen without Internet or printer access, or 3 computer screen with Internet and printer access called the "real-world" condition. There were no differences in report quality or efficiency between those whose source materials were paper or computer. However, global report quality was significantly better when participants read source texts on a computer screen without Internet or printer access, compared with when they had Internet and printer access. Active use of paper for note-taking greatly reduced the negative impact of Internet and printer access in the real-world condition. Although participants expressed a preference for accessing information on paper, reading the texts on paper did not make a significant difference in report quality, compared with either of the two computer conditions. Implications for formal and informal learning are discussed.
International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(4), 1-27, October-December 2013 1
Copyright © 2013, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
Learning from Paper,
Learning from Screens:
Impact of Screen Reading and
Multitasking Conditions on Reading
and Writing among College Students
Kaveri Subrahmanyam, California State University, Los Angeles, CA, USA & Children’s
Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Minas Michikyan, California State University, Los Angeles, CA, USA & Children’s Digital
Media Center @ Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Christine Clemmons, Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
& University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Rogelio Carrillo, California State University, Los Angeles, CA, USA & Children’s Digital
Media Center @ Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Yalda T. Uhls, Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA, USA &
University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Patricia M. Greeneld, Children’s Digital Media Center @ Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA,
USA & University of California, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Keywords: Electronic Screens, Multitasking, Paper, Reading Comprehension, Reading Time, Report
Writing, Tablet Computers
ABSTRACT
Electronic screens on laptop and tablet computers are being used for reading text, often while multitasking.
Two experimental studies with college students explored the effect of medium and opportunities to multitask
on reading (Study 1) and report writing (Study 2). In study 1, participants (N = 120) read an easy and dif-
cult passage on paper, a laptop, or tablet, while either multitasking or not multitasking. Neither multitasking
nor medium impacted reading comprehension, but those who multitasked took longer to read both passages,
indicating loss of efciency with multitasking. In Study 2, participants (N = 67) were asked to synthesize
source material in multiple texts to write a one-page evidence-based report. Participants read the source
texts either on (1) paper, (2) computer screen without Internet or printer access, or (3) computer screen with
Internet and printer access (called the “real-world” condition). There were no differences in report quality
or efciency between those whose source materials were paper or computer. However, global report quality
was signicantly better when participants read source texts on a computer screen without Internet or printer
access, compared with when they had Internet and printer access. Active use of paper for note-taking greatly
reduced the negative impact of Internet and printer access in the real-world condition. Although participants
expressed a preference for accessing information on paper, reading the texts on paper did not make a sig-
nicant difference in report quality, compared with either of the two computer conditions. Implications for
formal and informal learning are discussed.
DOI: 10.4018/ijcbpl.2013100101
Copyright © 2013, IGI Global. Copying or distributing in print or electronic forms without written permission of IGI Global is prohibited.
2 International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 3(4), 1-27, October-December 2013
INTRODUCTION
Electronic screens such as those found in
computers, laptops, tablet computers, and e-
readers are increasingly used to read text, and
it is important to consider their implications
for student learning. Data collected by the Pew
Internet and American Project suggest that, as
of May 2013, 56% of American adults owned
a smartphone (e.g., Android, iPhone) and 34%
owned a tablet computer; as of April 2012,
61% owned a laptop and 58% owned a desktop
computer (Brenner, 2013; Zickuhr, 2013). In
2010, between 59 and 93% U.S. college stu-
dents (community college, undergraduate, and
graduate students) reported owning a desktop or
a laptop computer (Smith, et al., 2011). Among
youth, a 2012 survey of U.S. 12- to 17-year-
olds reported that 93% have home computer
access, 37% own a smartphone, and 23% have
a tablet computer; one in four reported that they
are “cell-mostly” Internet users, who use their
phone to go online most of the time (Madden &
Lenhart, 2013). Moreover, tablets and electronic
books are being adopted by students of all ages
for access to textbooks and other instructional
materials (Hu, 2011; Rockinson-Szapkiw, 2011)
and recently, the Los Angeles Unified District
approved iPads for every child in the district’s
schools (Blume, 2013).
Given that electronic screens have become
pervasive, it is important to examine how
individuals process, comprehend, and utilize
digital text compared with text on the traditional
medium of paper. This paper describes two stud-
ies that examined the relative effectiveness and
efficiency of screens versus paper for reading
as well as synthesizing information and writing
a research-based report under naturalistic con-
ditions. Because so much reading and writing
takes place in environments that include access
to the Internet or to a cell phone, multitask-
ing while reading or writing on the computer
has also come into play. The effects of the
resulting distraction on reading (Study 1) and
report-writing (Study 2) are also explored in the
present research. The results have potentially
important implications for both formal as well
as informal learning.
ELECTRONIC SCREENS
AS CULTURAL TOOLS
Why would we expect electronic screens or
the particular reading medium to affect how
learners process text? To answer this question,
we turn to Vygotsky’s proposal that cogni-
tive development is mediated by the semiotic
mechanisms or psychological tools provided by
the culture such as language, counting systems,
algebra, and writing (Vygotsky, 1978). Socio-
cultural theorists now recognize that tools such
as the paint brush, computers, calendars, and
symbol systems also play an important role in
knowledge construction during development
(John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996). Indeed mass
media such as radio, film, and television, were
considered to be early electronic tools and have
been joined today by digital media such as tablet
computers, video and computer games, and the
Internet (Greenfield, 1994; Subrahmanyam
& Greenfield, 2008). Greenfield (1993) has
posited that cognitive socialization is the pro-
cess by which cultural tools impact processing
skills; on this view, different tools utilize and
require different processing skills. As a widely
used cultural artifact, media are important tools
of cognitive socialization (Subrahmanyam &
Greenfield, 2008). Different media use dif-
ferent symbol systems radio uses auditory
representations, television uses auditory, iconic,
and visual representations, and computer games
use auditory, iconic, visual, dynamic, and spatial
representations. Consequently, repeated use of
a particular media form will help to internalize
the medium-specific representational skills
that it uses.
Research has shown that different media
forms do indeed help to foster and develop
different cognitive skills (Subrahmanyam &
Greenfield, 2008). For instance, several ex-
perimental studies have shown that repeated
computer game playing enhances selected at-
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