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This is an excerpt from
The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease
(Penguin, 2013, 7th edition)

Now available as both a paperback and e-book.

See also Handbook FAQs.

Handbook cover 2013 edition



Digital Learning — Good News and Bad -- continued

Some Words from the Doomsayers

For brevity’s sake I’ll list just five of the major liabilities some of the experts see in online learning, followed by their reasoning.

  1. Kids will be kids. Wi-Fi or not, sophomores act sophomorically.
  2. Educational software companies regularly either overpromise or lie about their products.
  3. Multitasking diminishes achievement.
  4. Constant connectedness undercuts thinking and creativity.
  5. Hyperlinked text (online reading) impedes understanding.

Kids will be kids. Nate Stulman was a sophomore at Swarthmore College when he decided to monitor how his classmates were using their computers. Despite the fact that Swarthmore is one of the preeminent small colleges in the United States, Stulman discovered its students were using their computers in the same way millions of others do at lesser schools: playing games, e-mailing boyfriends and girlfriends, killing time in chat rooms, and uploading and downloading music (Facebook and Twitter hadn’t been invented yet).

ethernet cableWriting for the New York Times op-ed page,7 Stulman concluded that many students are too immature to handle the distractions and temptations of the Internet, a fact largely unaddressed by those who think wiring the school is like wiring the brain. More than a few school districts that have handed laptops to their high school students have learned that digital connections do not hurry maturity.8

Educational software companies regularly either overpromise or lie about their products. On the same September day in 2011 when millions were being told by the Associated Press that six hundred school districts were launching iPad programs to put the latest technology in their students’ hands,9 the New York Times devoted a large chunk of its front page and two full pages inside to a more sobering technology story.10 The Kyrene (Arizona) School District was entering year six in its technological classroom revolution, having poured $33 million into techno-smart gadgets. Conclusion: stuck in neutral.

One hundred percent of the cyberschool students did worse than their public counterparts.

Although above the state average, Kyrene’s math and reading scores had shown negligible improvement in six years, despite all the clicking, mousing, and PowerPointing. This didn’t surprise the experts, who pointed out there were few studies showing either positive or negative results from the digital investment in classrooms. The former executive director for education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation told the Times, “The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data.”

In fact, the number of government and independent studies documenting the ineffectiveness of education software to date is too long to be included here as anything but footnotes.11 All their findings were summarized by one New York Times headline: “Inflating the Software Report Card,”12 which is what ed-software salesmen appear to have been doing to the tune of $2. 2 billion a year.

When Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) project tracked four years’ worth of reading scores for more than 73,000 Pennsylvania charter school students, it found 100 percent of the cyberschool students (who operate entirely online from home) did worse than their public counterparts in school.13 Colorado’s cyberstudent graduation rate was 12 percent versus 78 percent for public-schoolers.14 Even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, meeting shortly before Jobs’s death in 2011, “agreed that, so far, computers had made surprisingly little impact on schools.”15

Multitasking diminishes achievement. It’s possible that e-fans are overestimating both the gadgets and the kids. If the challenge is juggling, then a digital device is like a rubber ball that you’re juggling between your hands. Add another ball to the mix and the process becomes more challenging. Add a third or fourth and you’ve got your hands full. It gets harder and harder to add more.

digital distractionsNow think digital devices juggled by the brain. Today’s teenager is regularly juggling e-tablets, iPods, smartphones, and laptops, along with the TV in their bedroom. From 2,272 text messages a month in 2008, American teenagers (ages 13–17) ballooned to 3,339 messages a month in 2010, an average of six per waking hour. Simply put, students in one of the most formative periods of their intellectual and emotional lives are interrupted 118 times a day for messages, totaling 90 minutes.16

Still juggling the twenty- four- hour day, let’s look at what the student is also doing while texting. The longest-running examination of children’s media consumption is the Kaiser Family Foundation study.17 When Kaiser reported on children’s media multitasking in 2009, researchers found a daily increase of more than two hours since 2004: 10. 7 hours of multimedia packed into 7. 5 hours—all of it devoted to movies, music, TV, videos, and a little print. And that was before the birth of smartphones or e-tablets like the Kindle and iPad.

Exactly how much can the brain juggle before losing something more important than a rubber ball? Dr. Clifford Nass and Stanford researchers studied the impact of media multitasking on two groups of university students to see if there were any differences in their memory and performance.18 While performing various tasks, they had to juggle media that included cell phone, Twitter, texting, video chatting, and Web surfing.

The students, judged to be of comparable intelligence, were divided into heavy multitaskers and light multitaskers, depending on how much they were assigned to use simultaneously. The heavy media multitaskers lost on every count, with deficits on all aspects of attention. Nass and his colleagues found the heavy users struggled to tell what was relevant or not, and were more easily distracted by irrelevant material. Their recall abilities showed scrambled recollections, and they were more disorganized in switching tasks. The same impairment findings have also held true for multitasking as simple as talking on a cell phone while driving a car.19

Hyperlinked text (online reading) impedes understanding. One of the most sobering examinations of the Internet’s impact on our human thinking can be found in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. With degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard, Carr is a frequent contributor to some of the most prestigious journals on both sides of the Atlantic and a member of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s editorial board. But he had a problem.

They’d begun to read the way they were thinking — quick
and skimming.

The Shallows was written in response to his conclusion that a decade of steady Internet usage had significantly “tinkered” with his brain, making it increasingly difficult to read complex narrative. His concentration continually drifted, his reading grew shallower, and his recall suffered.

When Carr shared his problem with colleagues, distinguished writers and researchers, many confessed to similar problems, even to the extent that they had ceased to read long narratives altogether. They’d begun to read the way they were thinking— quick and skimming. Who needed to read at length? Google will do that for us.

In The Shallows, Carr devoted a carefully documented twenty-six-page chapter to the hazards of reading online. Here are a few of his sobering observations:

  • Hyperlinked (underlined) text both slows the reading process and impedes understanding.20
  • The torrential force of information and diversions facing the Internet reader overwhelms the brain, making “distractions more distracting.”21
  • Among one hundred volunteers presenting a lesson via their computer browsers, half received a text-only version and half had text with a multimedia window on the lesson added. The text-only volunteers scored significantly higher on the posttest.22
  • Studies of eye movements while reading online show only about 18 percent of a Web page is actually read, with the average page view lasting 10 seconds or less.23

Carr’s concerns about inattention during online reading are further supported by newspaper industry studies that track reader behavior. Visitors to online newspaper sites spent an average of 45 minutes per month at the sites, compared with print users of those newspapers, whose monthly use averaged 790 minutes.24 The online readers seldom, if ever, read in depth.


This poster on the dangers of believing everything on the Web is free for downloading and printing by nonprofit groups. Created by Jim Trelease, details and a larger preview can be found at Watch-Out for poster on Web dangers



Chapter Seven — p.1   p.2    Footnotes

Topics covered in Chapter 7 of print and e-book editions of The Read-Aloud Handbook:

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