The Grumpy Giraffe

Critiques on social and education issues

The Glorification of E-Books: lower rates of knowledge retention

Being in the Age of Information can be a blessing and a curse. For one, we do not need to trek to the library in a blizzard to do research for our midterm essays. If anyone lives near southern Ontario, you would know that there was a blizzard a few days ago when snow blew horizontally.

This leads to the education sphere in developed countries to experiment with a technological initiative. The sector is currently undergoing an eBook movement. Literacy has been at the forefront of many schools in various cultures along the spectrum of East to West, but it is apparent that reading for leisure is a dying habit.

Teachers are constantly being scrutinized as outdated and out of the loop (particularly in technology), so eBooks were one of the many things introduced into the school as an attempt to spark interest in reading again. Computers were the first revolutionaries of this movement, then laptops, and recently, iPads and eBooks have entered the scene.

Doug Johnson lists some of these advantages, which are definitely all legitimate reasons to fall into the whirlpool trend of technology. I love using the Smartboard properly, as in more than just a screen to project onto. His list elaborates on the details of many of the advantages, but it doesn’t go into the disadvantages. One of the most apparent hurdles is acquiring enough funding and accessibility.

What happens to students who can’t afford a tablet?

Certainly, the students on the short end are going to feel excluded, and perhaps even embarrassed, because of the pressure to afford an iPad or an e-reading device. When a teacher says, “Now do this for homework on your tablet”, and the child doesn’t have one, what do they do? Technology is important, but it should not be a means of exclusion.

Doug talks about “value-added features afforded by e-reading”, at what cost? Some of these features include “built-in tools like graphing calculators, mind mapping software, timeline generators, and note-taking/organizing apps”. There are some good, free apps, but most of the ones that can last longer than a day are 14-day free trials.

Another problem with the temptation of technology is the discipline that goes along with ensuring that it is being used for educational purposes, and not just because it looks sparkly.

Sesame Workshop, a NY-based non-profit organization that promotes children’s reading came out with a survey that showed the efficacy (and effective use) of E-books, basic and enhanced. These graphs are interesting because they could serve as a wake-up call to the tech fanboys and fangirls that technology isn’t always the best answer (unless you can instill great discipline in your child, but very few parents are able to do so, let alone teachers).

The following graph shows the number of content-related and non-content related actions the parents and children do when they read an E-book versus a print book. In an enhanced Ebook, which has been rumoured to enhance your child’s learning while reading said Ebook, the child’s actions are almost off the charts in terms of non-content related actions.


The following graph is the real point I’m trying to get at to deter teachers from boarding onto the bandwagon without doing research. While basic Ebooks (i.e. literally just text on the screen with no “text to speech” or other enhancement features) are still able to pull a tragically marginal lead in retaining content, enhanced Ebooks negatively affect content retention.


So although children seem to be more engaged with E-books, particularly the enhanced ones, it shows that their reading comprehension was not monotonic. When enhanced Ebooks had interactive features that weren’t directly connected with the text, they distracted parents and the children from the story.

Perhaps Ebooks are all the rage now, but we should be mindful of what we do with technology. Tech is not innately evil; it is not out to get our souls, but we need to teach our children (and students) the self-discipline needed to really benefit fully from the Ebooks.

To improve literacy and vocabulary skills, parents are encouraged to begin with print books first, or at least Ebooks that have more literacy-focused features (i.e. not just a “Point to where Spot is on the page”).

Sandra Aamodt also writes that reading on a screen requires more effort, particularly on a computer screen. This may explain why we become tired after reading a long article (such as this) and have difficulty retaining what we read: we spend too much energy trying to deal with the flickering whereas we could have been concentrating on the content.

However, it may be my own bias, but print books have always been my preferred medium for texts. The feel of actual paper provides a completely different reading experience than swiping my thumb across a Kindle. The smell of the paper is, in itself, a sensuous experience than the plastic of the e-reader. The engravings on the cover and spine let the reader get a glimpse of the setting, and these hieroglyphs open up a whole new dimension.

Reading is no longer just visual effort decoding the text; it has become an experience involving touch, smell and sight. It’s no wonder that the passenger next to you has been oblivious to the chatting high schoolers on the bus, or that her scarf is falling onto the floor.

Although youth today are digital natives, I still see them prefer print books, but they are usually mystified at their attraction towards paper. Some experiences are just irreplaceable.


14 comments on “The Glorification of E-Books: lower rates of knowledge retention

  1. kindle books
    April 17, 2014

    The very next time I read a blog, I hope that it won’t fail me just as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read through, but I actually believed you’d have something interesting to talk about. All I hear is a bunch of complaining about something that you can fix if you weren’t too busy seeking attention.

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      June 5, 2015

      And how can you fix the blinking of screens distracting the brain when reading a screen, Mr./Ms. “kindle books”, or is it a moot argument due to the assumed bias from your name?

  2. Pingback: Hypatia's House » Print versus E-books

  3. Pingback: c u at the lib?? x – Texting leads to more reading | The Grumpy Giraffe

  4. The Grumpy Giraffe
    February 11, 2013

    Definitely! One of the points Doug made in this list of advantages was a lighter backpack. My courses this year either don’t use textbooks, or they’re eBooks on the school library website, so not only does it save money, but as you pointed out, it saves space.

  5. Samantha
    February 11, 2013

    I agree that it would probably be beneficial to start kids out with print or basic Kindles without the Internet in the background as a distractor. However, I think ebooks might be the way to go possibly starting in high school, but definitely in college. By this point, it is more likely that each student has discovered the methods that they use most efficiently to learn, and can utilize those tools accordingly. I wish more textbooks had been in e-book form when I was in college, it would have saved me the space and the money, for sure.

    I also wanted to say that I LOVED what you said about video games and Twitter in an earlier comment. They are such valid points that people tend to overlook. Strategy, math, logical reasoning, and spacial thinking have never been my strong suits (I have always been off the charts with reading comprehension, spelling, etc. but never with math and the more logical studies), and playing MMOs have helped all of these skills, not to mention leadership/team building, etc. Too much of anything can be a bad thing, but I don’t think anyone should knock something as essentially harmless as an MMO before they try it. And for Twitter, it teaches some lessons in being precise and to the point. It is also a fabulous professional tool.

  6. belligerentbear
    February 11, 2013

    I agree i do like print better but the ebooks offers a lot too. It allows the reader to access so much more material without taking up loads and loads of shelf space. The number of ebooks and magazines in my kobo reader would rival the piles of books i have in my possession. It is no knock on paper books, but digital copies allows us to save so much more space and allow us to keep so much more books instead of being limited to physical space.

  7. flamesofthoughts
    February 11, 2013

    I am not pro in judging the techniques for learning, but just want to make one point. The retentive power has more to do with your imagination and efforts, and is basically the factor behind power of recalling. The traditional print books offer no additional pictures, audios and other enhancements, hence the reader is forced to imagine the things in her mind. Now, the memory works better for things which you store in your mind as an imagined picture. Since enhanced E-Books offer all these enhancements, less effort it demands from reader to imagine, and naturally this makes them understand better, but it also erode their imagination, hence their memory’s retentive power. Again, this is what I think from my personal experiences.

    • Pete Laberge
      February 11, 2013

      Yes, you make some good points. Today, I keep hearing this over and over:

      “We have to make the kids creative! We have to get them to be creative! We have to teach them to be creative!” Foolish teachers! You can no more teach creativity than you can teach color vision. It is either there, or it is not. Creativity is not a tap that can be turned on and off, like hot water. It is a well, to be drawn from.

      But, when my sister, who just turned 70, was young, they were “naturally creative”. They had to be. It was not all “done for them”, so they had to use their brains, and their imagination. They had to think, and they also had to act. They might have survived, else wise, but they equally well might have not. (We discussed this last night, she agrees with me. She said she had no idea her little brother could be so insightful.)

      When I came along, some 14 years later, we still had to use our imaginations, our brains, and our memories. True, we did memorize a lot of useless facts, but at least, we got to practice using our memories, brains, imaginations.

      Today, kids have it “all done for them”. It is all a video game, a TV show. How can they find the time, or the reason, or the opportunity, or the need, or the desire, to engage in: Daydreaming…. Imagining a series of events from just 1 or 2 pictures (be they drawn or photos)… Thinking about an issue, an event, a thing… Going out into nature and exploring… Making up their own game… (Or changing the rules of a board game, because they can. It is harder to change the rules of a programmed game, you see.) Making up an imaginary friend…. Having to put some real, well considered, well developed, deep, and lengthy thoughts down of paper… How? They cannot. For they keep on being bombarded by “one kaleidoscope of stuff” after another.

      A video! A music video! An animated Prezi! A TV Show! A talking book! A video game, with flashing lights and music, and 3-D graphics! WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! One thing after another. They have no time to pause, to reflect, to analyse, to digest, to internalize! Gotta get the latest CD, DVD! The latest “e-game” with 50,000.000 players!

      “They cannot do ‘critical thinking’!”, the teachers cry out! We have to teach them! Again, foolish teachers! The human brain and mind was made for thinking. That is its purpose. You cannot “teach that”, the refinement of those skills, abilities, experiences, only comes from doing. Do do critical thinking, you need a chance to do it. And a reason. And time. Consider Voltaire, Newton, Einstein. A host of others, some a lot more recent than the ones I noted.

      “Oh, they cannot write! They cannot communicate. They speak in soundbites, and wrote in soundbites. The are moody! They say ‘ummm’ and so on!” Of course! Do you not know how costly “electronic ink” is, compared to the real stuff? (To say nothing of the cost of electronic multi-media.)

      To comment on a Youtube video, you have 500 characters to say something cogent and useful. You must “prune your comment to the quick.” You have no space to explore ideas, thoughts, concepts! No, you DO NOT always need the space. But if you do need it, it is not there. But for a real paper essay, you can add one more sheet of paper, even though there are only 2 paragraphs on it.

      And of course, if you “Tweet” enough in a day, you learn think and write in 100-and-some character pithy remarks. (For it depends on how many people you send your message to, and you need space for the “addresses”!) Yes, it can teach you to be concise. But too much a of a good thing, like water, can drown you. Variety is useful!

      If you text message, you learn to abbreviate CUL8R. (See You Later.) You have to, because it is easier to do, more convenient, and quicker. (We live in too quick a society. Instant gratification, anyone?)

      Oh, some say, “it does not affect their work”. But we have only been doing this a few years. For some, it DOES indeed affect, even if it is only the few. I could give a number of historical examples, but do not have the time. Of course, as has been written (I forget by who) “Predicting the future is deucedly difficult business.” So i will not try to predict what may or may not happen 10 years form now. I do confess to not being overly optimistic.

      So, stuck with the “new hi-tech media”, you can OFTEN no longer write a thoughtful essay, a good book, an artful poem. (Poems usually do have short lines, but it is easy to go over 100 characters.) You can no longer engage in interesting sentence constructions. Why? You have no chance to practice, to try, to experiment, to do! You have been limited by your medium. With a 6 second video, you can make something artful, cute, trivial…. But not deep, not permanent, not useful. Imagine JF Kennedy’s inaugural address, in 6 seconds. Imagine a 140 character US Constitution. (THAT solves gun control!) Or a 140 character SOS from the Titanic. What if their GPS is not working? WHERE exactly, are they sinking? Who cares!

      Don’t believe me? Consider:
      This is my outgoing phone machine message:
      “You have reached Pierre and Noella. We are sorry, we cannot take your call at the moment. After the sound of the beep, please leave your name, phone number, and a message. Any message. You have 4 minutes, but brevity is appreciated. Thank you.”
      It is very useful. I get some interesting and useful messages. It is very useful, as I have a couple of contacts with speech impediments. (Not that the modern world cares about them!)

      But I used to work at a company whose phone machine allowed for 15 second messages….
      “Please leave your name and number!”
      “Hi it’s John Wodjehowitz… um… 705 678-121” We never called John back. What WAS the last digit of his phone number? 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,0? I was too busy to try that many combinations… He never called back.

      The medium is the message? HAH! Sadly McLuhan (a fellow Canadian), was “full of it”. Because FIRST… You need a message. A properly crafted message. Then, you need to choose an appropriate medium, and use it properly. Don’t believe me? I can still recall a McDonald’s commercial that I loved, from 1983 or 84. They have sold me a BIG pile of hamburgers based on it. Their latest 300 or so efforts? All mostly ignored. But I still go to McDonalds. The habits, you see, were formed years ago.

      Another called had more luck leaving a message in 15 seconds, but it took him 3 tries! Finally:
      “Bill R Jamieson, here. 705 698-1324” The “4” barely made it under the wire. He was not being pretentious. There were, at the time, a number of Jamiesons in town. We had 6, as clients. That middle initial was a VERY useful piece of data to us! It told me everything I needed to know to call him back. As a result, my call was very successful. But you prefer robo-calls, do you not? I thought not. WHY, exactly, does everyone USE robo-calls, though we ALL hate them? It seems illogical!

      And that is why I worry, not about the use of these toys in classrooms. Rather, I worry about their over-use. I worry about the chances for mis-use, abuse. And I worry that the teachers, have abdicated their role. Let the electronic babysitters do the job. That is well and good. But if I, as a taxpayer, have had to spend millions on toys to do the teaching. And no learning is guaranteed… Well, I have a problem now. Since the teacher is not doing the work…. And since I spent all my money on toys…. It is a matter of opportunity cost. I am out of funds. And here are all these very expensive teachers. Hummm…. Well, I CAN solve that problem. Easily. Beware teachers. You CAN be replaced.

      Oh my! But that is already happening. And I see it happening more and more. But, will that be good for the students and education? Well, if it gets rid of some of the “dragons” I had to endure, people who should not have been allowed within 50,000 miles of a student, perhaps. On the other hand, I had one or two good ones. And my dyslexic friend Ron? (Noted in another post.) In 12 years of school, most of what he learned, he learned in 2.5 years. From one caring human being.

      There is nothing wrong with properly used and appropriate technology. But doing 125 kmh, on the QEW, in a “Smart Car”, in freezing rain. Not a good idea.

      • The Grumpy Giraffe
        February 11, 2013

        There’s so much I want to comment on, but as a university student, time is of essence.

        I would like to caution people not to bash video games or TV. As an avid gamer myself, I find myself critical of the game developer and game master’s intents in the game. For example, why am I doing this quest? What is the point of killing the 28 ghouls? How does this play in the bigger picture? Studies have already shown that gamers make decisions 12% faster, and it isn’t just because they needed to pick a decision. They are able to, within a time constraint, to process the details at a quicker rate due to necessity.

        Gamers are definitely not always mind drones. In fact, very few are. In all types of video games, the gamer has to deal with the manipulation of the screen and activities, while measuring the benefits and consequences, before their timely death (or injury, whatever). Particularly in MMOs (which include RPGs), many useful, personable skills like teamwork, cooperation, and leadership are fostered and nurtured in such safe settings (as safe as you can get, anyway, while your character’s life points decrease at 700 per second: is your cleric going to make the right move to save you in time?)

        Critical thinking is also nurtured in these environments: gamers need to think rationally about what they see, and the purposes their actions serve. In a game I currently play, I have opted out of doing quests simply because they weren’t very significant in the bigger picture, and I can always do them later. Many players analyze the purposes and long-term benefits of their actions, and think about the “hidden message” of the game to decide whether they will continue to play, or leave.

        You are right in the sense that critical thinking cannot be just “turned on” like a switch. However, teachers are there to help students realize the use and process of critical thinking. We teach kids how to think, NOT what to think. Always ask “why” and “how”. Start off with “what”: what is the media telling me? How are they doing so? Why are they doing this/what is their intent?

        Although humans are naturally curious (“Why is the sky blue?”), some of these habits may have become dormant as a result of socialization (i.e. sit still, listen to the teacher/parents, do this, do that, don’t ask me so many questions, can’t you see I’m annoyed?). It is up to social agents such as families and schools to help kids “wake up”, so to speak, to the world around them, and realize that everything has a purpose, and is not just there for a reason.

        A comment about Twitter: at first glance, it may seem like a shallow piece of tech a college IT student came up with. 140 characters? Where is the depth? However, aside from reflection skills (which can be done through, say, blogging, which also uses tech), it also forces the writer to be precise and concise, and to actually be creative by forming abbreviations such as “c u l8r”. Students are taught to summarize long texts in a few paragraphs, and Twitter can be a practical way to introduce or enforce ways of being succinct. As I’m sure you know, kids tend to ramble on and on about a worm they saw at the park, and 5 minutes later, in the same conversation, they’re talking about Phineas and Ferb, completely unrelated to the worm!

        Technology also helps expose your work internationally. I had originally preferred to write in a notebook, but I’ve quickly found out that I type faster (~130 wpm) than I could write, and that there were only very few people who were exposed to my work. With this blog, I’ve gotten readers from over 110 countries reading my thoughts and sharing their own, and it creates a bigger forum. Same with Twitter, it can be international if you wanted it to be, and it is a very fast way to communicate in a concise way.

        Of course there are negative things associated with tech, just like with traditional print media, but the key is to finding out how to use them in a beneficial way for higher thinking. Twitter can do this, but teachers and parents need to work together to show children how Twitter can be useful.

  8. Chas Spain
    February 11, 2013

    Great to have some research on this subject emerging. However I saw an interesting comment which I have to agree with from a biologist’s view point. Humans are animals and we are fundamentally wired for survival. We are also incredibly adaptable to learn new tasks that can lead to some social advantage – so if we’re in an environment where reading gives a social or survival advantage then we (the species average) will adopt it.
    The more efficient we can make this task the better – because our brains sap us of glucose faster than any other organ and, as you point out, acquiring skills and knowledge through trial and error can be exhausting.
    (How envious am I of people starting their research career with the internet at their disposal? I think all these young whippers should be made to do their Masters degrees hopping on one leg or with some other minor disadvantage.)
    Of course most children quickly learn to find the shortest route to any solution.
    This may not necessarily mean overall learning is poorer than it was in our day. They may have adapted to take in information more quickly or more efficiently – we just can’t know yet. One thing I do know is that the average 10-12 year old is about 100% smarter and savvier than I was or ever will be and most of us couldn’t use our iPads or iPhones without their help.

  9. Pete Laberge
    February 11, 2013

    Fascinating. So, there may, after all, be some value, to doing things the older way. Clearly, much more study is needed.

    And of course, there are different kinds of things to read, both with books, and e-books. And there are many mediums. Some things might work better in one medium. But other things might work better in another medium. And of course, there are different kids of learners. What works for Paul, may not work for Jane.

    And there are different kinds of things to learn. You might learn well from a video about the Halifax Harbour Disaster. But for learning how to fix the brakes on a car, “learn by doing”, would be best. (Provided you have someone to check your work!) A Prezi on the Yugoslavian Revolution might be very good. But a well done PowerPoint on replacing the heat exchanger on a furnace, would win out. For one thing, you can print out all the check sheets, and government required “tickets” very easily.

    The medium, may SOMETIMES be the message. But without the message (well developed), all the medium in the world does not good. Content is still king, in many ways. So it is a gestalt thing: Message, medium, topic, target market.

    eg: My friend Ron, is dyslexic. He can read, quite well, but slowly. Now something he wants to read, he can read much better than something he does not want to read. He likes reading books and magazines about D&D. He is very good at that, and understands much more about it, than I ever could. He also loves reading about British History, or the Knights Templar. He is quite a bit of an expert on that. But do not ask him to read about, say, income taxes, or cellular biology, or cost accounting….

    But one thing he loves, are good “documentary type” TV shows and movies. Especially ones about history. For him, tt is a matter of convenience. In 3 hours, from a good documentary, he can learn more about something, and learn it more easily, than he could from struggling through a book on the topic. (For one thing the book would take him perhaps 6 hours!) And the bigger the screen, the easier it is for him. A 12″ TV, he get little from. A 26″ TV, much more. A movie in a theatre (where there are no distractions), even more. Some 3D movies work with him. Others, that use a different technology, prove annoying.

    Naturally, like many dyslexics, he has a fantastic memory. (Although, again it is rather selective. Like all of us, he remembers more “that which he wants to”.) And, math, he sucks at. “The numbers move around too much….” — he says. A calculator is his friend, a spreadsheet, is beyond him. But together, we make a great team.

    Perhaps, what I am trying to say, is that we need to study more on personalizing learning, not only to the learner, but to the topic, and to the needs at hand. We need to consider both speed, and retention amount rates, and retention duration times.

    We might want to ask, before we choose a method: What do we need to learn? How fast? How much must be retained? For how long? Will the resources be available for future reference? What works best for this learner?

    Of course, getting those answers right requires not only studies, data, statistics, and science…. but we must also remember that “doing plumbing is an art”. And motorcycle maintenance, may require some “Zen”…

    I look forward to hearing more on this topic!

    • The Grumpy Giraffe
      February 11, 2013

      Tailoring to the learner has always been part of my teaching philosophy. I’m glad that you brought up the importance of content, and not just the medium. Your example with Ron drives the point home.

      Another issue that just popped into my mind now (and not while writing this post) is the obsession of “integrating” technology into everything, even when another medium could prove to be more beneficial. Teachers who stick technology for the sake of being able to say they used technology make me feel embarrassed: surely as leaders of the future, we can do better than this! As you say, sometimes, the “old way”, such as chart paper and markers, work better.

      • Pete Laberge
        February 11, 2013

        I am glad you try tailor to the learner. After all that is the “raison d’etre”.

        Learning is not about “teachers”, “tech”, “rubrics”, “curriculum”, or jargon, or whatever. Learning is about learning! At the end of the day, the student knows (retains/ understands/ can use) X more “facts”/ “techniques”/ “thoughts”/ “experiences”/ etc…. than he/she did at the start. And hopefully, they will be useful to that person later on in life. Now, “later”, could be in 1 year, or in 10 years. The “retention” might be for 5 years, or for 50, depending on the need.

        It is not the “age” of a method, or the “tech”, or the “glitter”. It is basically the appropriateness. You could use a helicopter, I guess, to mow your lawn. But then, you could use an old push reel mower, too! On my lawn, neither would work well. So I use a self-propelled gas mower. At my age, I have to. Darnit! I am no longer 20! I make the “tech” fit the needs of the situation.

        You are right: We seem to be very tech obsessed! There is nothing wrong with tech. Used appropriately. Mind you, I have been known to hammer nails with a screwdriver handle, myself. But at the time, that was all I had. I made it work. (Long story! I will not bore you! I have no desire to be kicked by a grumpy giraffe!)

        I am also reminded of my friend Troy. He was born, either ADD or ADHD. (There are complications to the diagnosis.) In some ways, he is not too bright. In other ways, he is a genius! He reads very poorly, and writes very poorly. Yet he does great work with drawing programs on computers. He does well with a number of computer programs.

        A thing about Troy: A few years ago, we were looking for a hard to find address. He had some notes (directions) on a paper, that he kept referring to. “Here, give it to me to read!” – I said. He handed it over. I could make neither heads nor tails of it. It was a sort of “gibberish writing” that he had invented himself. I could not read it, yet he could! And yes, we found the address.

        I am trying to help a friend, for instance, to set up an ipad for his handicapped daughter. (If I can get over there. If winter calms down!) Physically, she is 30, mentally about 8. She also has some physical handicaps. But as a person, she is wonderful. She can also clean my clock playing “bowling”, and some other games, on a Wii. I know a bit about old style programming, random number generation, and can recall a little bit about the physics of calculating an object’s movement. and so on… Years ago, I actually did some 5 pin bowling. But I cannot keep up. Her style is wild, and weird. It would seem illogical that she can use it to “get anywhere”. But it works very well for her. She has incredible fun. And so do I, when we play together. (She also beats her mum & dad AT THE SAME TIME!)

        You might ask, “Are all your friends handicapped?” Yes, in some way. But in some other ways, they are more able than you or I put together…. Even if I do wear coke-bottle-bottom glasses, and suffer from depression, fibromyalgia, and diabetes! We all have our abilities, and our limitations.

        Take care. For grumpiness, I recommend chewing on some eucalyptus leaves!

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