I think I’m a little bit in love

Meredith Broussard

Meredith Broussard

with Meredith Broussard, a data journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.  Get this:  she bans the use of e-books in her classes although she teaches courses in digital journalism (h/t to commenter Susan.)  As Broussard explains on her syllabus:

You must bring a print copy of the texts to class. While I understand that e-books are convenient, and I enjoy reading them myself, our class depends on face-to-face interaction. Print is the absolute best interface for what we do in this class. The myriad interruptions and malfunctions of electronic readers tend to interfere with class conversation and distract you from being able to refer quickly to a passage in the text. So: read on whatever you like at home, but bring a book or a printout to class.

Why?  It turns out that in her experience, our so-called “digital native” students don’t always plan ahead.  (Surprise!  Or not, for anyone accustomed to working with late adolescents and young adults.)  Also, as I have argued here in the past, she notes that codex technology is unsurpassed for her teaching style and goals:

I really do believe that print is the ideal interface for a classroom. I used to allow e-readers in class. For a couple of semesters, I patiently endured students announcing their technical difficulties to the entire class: “Wait, I’m out of juice, I have to find a plug.” “What page is that on? My Kindle has different pages, so I can’t find the passage we’re talking about.” “Professor, do you have an iPad charging cord I could use?” After a while, I realized that I was spending an awful lot of class time doing tech support. The 2-minute interruptions were starting to add up. E-readers were a disruptive technology in the classroom—and not in a good way.

I went back to print. I required all the students to buy the same edition of the book. Now, when I say, “Please look at the passage on page 45,” everybody opens the book to page 45 and looks at the passage and we have a conversation without getting bogged down in technical glitches.

She further explains why e-books as they exist now might be fine for pleasure reading, but they’re still inferior for higher-level learning:

It’s important to remember that e-readers have only been around for a few years, so there are dozens of user interface issues that have not been worked out yet. For example: You can’t easily flip through an e-book. In education, this matters more than you think. Let’s say that you were reading a book for class, and you remember seeing something important in a paragraph that you sort of remember was on a page that also had a picture of a fish. You flip through the book, and you see the page, but it’s not a picture of a fish, it’s a picture of a whale. But you found the passage, and you read it again, and you remember it this time. This is how human memory works: You can have a vague sense of something that looked like something, and you go and find it based on what it looked like. It’s not perfect, but it’s effective. Millions of these not-necessarily-linear information-retrieval experiences add up to an education. In an e-book, I couldn’t flip, and I couldn’t search for the phrase “fish picture,” because the picture wasn’t actually a fish. The educational possibilities are limited by the physical realities of the interface.

By contrast, the user interface for a book has been refined for centuries. What we call a ‘printed book’ today is a codex, a set of uniformly sized pages bound between covers. It was adopted around the 3rd or 4th century. A book’s interface is nearly perfect. It is portable, it never runs out of power, and you can write notes in it if you forget your notebook. The physical book is seamlessly integrated into the educational experience: It fits on any desk, even those cramped little writing surfaces that flip up from the side of a seat. You can sit around a table with 15 other people, each of whom has a book, and you can all see each other to have a conversation about what is on the page. If a book breaks, you replace it. If you drop a book in the sink, you dry it out. Paper may even be a better platform for the cognitive task of learning, according to a study by Norwegian professor Anne Mangen. “The ease with which you can find out the beginning, end and everything in between and the constant connection to your path, your progress in the text, might be some way of making it less taxing cognitively, so you have more free capacity for comprehension,”Mangen told Scientific American last year.

This research, as well as the countless informal observations of non-super professors like me, suggest that books and printed material make it easier to learn, and that the currently crude interface of e-books makes it more difficult to learn.  So I’m with Broussard:  “I believe in using the right tool for the task. Printed books are often the most effective tools for education. Not all types of education, and not all subjects, sure. Just the type of education I do, which is based on people being in a room together and engaging with ideas collectively.” She concludes with some trenchant observations about the push for K-12 districts to switch to all e-books, noting that “acquiring knowledge is already hard, and how it becomes even harder for students when the knowledge is buried behind layers of unnecessary or poorly designed technological complexity.”

So far at Baa Ram U., the number of e-book users remains small and un-disruptive in class, so I won’t go so far as to ban e-books.  But I think I’ll share her article with my students so that they’ll think about which reading formats facilitate their own learning.  Perhaps this link will be useful for you and your students as well.

I’ve been on the road–stay tuned for a report on my recent travels!  How’s your week going?

20 thoughts on “I think I’m a little bit in love

  1. Amen sister! Our library has taken to ordering e-books as the default when we order library purchases: we have to make a special request for the physical book. As library books these things are really problematic: some publishers limit how many students can read a book at the same time (when they all do the reading the night before); there can be similar restrictions on how or how much can be printed; they are ridiculously clunky to use, especially with endnotes instead of footnotes. The other day I was looking through an e-book in our regional system catalog, and after five minutes was prompted to “borrow” it or the window would shut down. So I “borrowed” it and saved the link in my tablet computer. The next day I went back to resume reading and discovered that the link had been timed out — I never borrowed anything at all, with or without the scare quotes!

    I’m going to send a copy of Broussard’s essay to our librarians. Thanks for the tip!


  2. Ironically, this term I’m teaching from a personal ebook in order to free up my own print copy for the library’s reserve service. Somehow, the bookstore just hasn’t been able to stock enough copies of Bennett’s History Matters so my ebook version has saved the day!


  3. More than 50 years ago, while standing in line at the grocery store I would work on trigonometry assignments with no paper, pen or textbook. It worked fine. It appears that learning is an internal brain process. Does the medium matter?

    I doubt it does.


  4. I don’t think it’s fair to blame problems caused by students’ unpreparedness on the medium.

    As for this criticism:

    For example: You can’t easily flip through an e-book. In education, this matters more than you think.

    The search function on a kindle makes it so easy to find stuff (I usually remember the quotations that I want to discuss in a class, so it’s not usually a problem). Lots of textbook producers are now producing e-books with real page numbers that correspond with the physical copy.

    But I concede annotation and notes are a problem in the e-book world. It’ll get better, I think.


  5. I was wondering the other day why the things I’ve learned the last fifteen years or so seem to tend to run together. They’re there, but they don’t have the organization and retrievability I’ve been used to.

    My assumption for years was that my brain was just going spongy. But then I realized that when I use books, it doesn’t happen.

    The physical cues are the essential difference. I’d never realized before that they play much role.

    Now I see that there’s been research done on this very question and that my hunch was pretty close to the mark!

    I’m pleased. But I’m also still doing all my work on a computer, as per established habit. Strange.


  6. I’m just amazed that as confirmed bibliophiles, we’ve not articulated this sooner. Their ability to do a word search in an ebook may – I’m speculating here – contribute to my students’ admission that they read words, not sentences or paragraphs. I do know that while i do a lot of my personal pleasure reading on my beloved iPad, for serious work I prefer and use print copies. And Broussard makes my point!


  7. My old babysitter! I’m sure she has no memory of me, but I remember her… 🙂 It’s funny she seemed so old and now we’re functionally the “same age.”


  8. I was doing some archival research recently, and forced to use a microfilm – it brought back all my aggravations with every medium besides a print book. I spent a long time afterwards thinking in my head about all the necessities and joys of “flipping through”.

    My students are required to bring printed versions of their sources to class as well. I’ve found in the humanities anyway, it’s not uncommon for them to do their reading on line and then they come to class without a computer. And of course they haven’t taken any notes on the reading!

    My week has been pretty stressful, thank you for asking! And it’s only going to get worse. At least there’s some good travel in the future to give me something to look forward to.


  9. Ahhhh, microfilm: a useful technology in its day that has turned out to be less durable than predicted. I haven’t had to use it extensively for 20 years now, and although I’m glad for it when nothing else exists, I could live and work most happily if I never had to use it again.

    Belle: I’ve written for a long time about what I see as the limited usefulness of e-books, but you’re right that Broussard pulls it all together really well & makes the point with specific reference to its ability to facilitate learning. That’s what my critiques were missing–I had a *feeling* that screen reading (and dependence on a fragile electronic device) was less effective & more precarious than codex, but I didn’t have the classroom experience or the data that Broussard pulled together.


  10. I’ve had thirty year-old reels of film actually “de-splice” right there halfway through the reel, and then what do you do? But it does provide a medium in which primary source materials are sometimes available for inter-library loan, and that’ll never happen with actual boxes of documents, so no matter how miserable the “user experience,” the technology does provide something. I remember the “wet print” era, then the “dry print” era, and now with the scan-and-send option, it almost makes the materials-handling nightmare worthwhile. At least with the best new readers, you’re fumbling helplessly with loading the film right out in front of yourself and in full light, instead of half-recessed under the screen where you can’t see what you’re not doing.

    Hoo-ray to Prof. Broussard, for taking the stand in a tech-oriented class–that’s what I’d call nuance!


  11. I’m of two minds on this one. All my pleasure reading is on ebooks, and I love article PDFs. And yet I still buy all my work books in print:

    1. You can’t, generally, share ebooks. How many times do we loan or get loaned a book? The single-use and multiple platforms of ebooks are a real problem.

    2. Despite my valuing the productive use of technology, I have found that undergrads who print out documents are the better students– because they highlight and take notes effectively. Not that you can’t take notes on ebooks, but as Sharat B. says, it is pretty clunky, so students generally don’t bother. Chicken or egg?

    I personally prefer Historiann’s sharing of information to bans: I worry about disability issues with a ban and prefer putting as few hurdles (or need for exceptions) as possible in my classes. Requiring print books could publicly mark someone’s disability in a way that I’d be uncomfortable with.


  12. Late to the conversation but I think Belle’s observation regarding how searching works in an electronic medium:

    my students’ admission that they read words, not sentences or paragraphs.

    is worth some thought.

    I observed a lot of students using pdfs of book chapters in a science (computer) lab setting last year. Many students jump right to the work assignment (the problem set at the end of each chapter) without reading any of the chapter itself. I’d written these things with great attention to how concepts build and interrelate over the course of each topic and they were missing all of that. Students would identify (as best they could) what work was required and then scan back up through the document looking for an example of that work. The text was not built that way (at all, on purpose) with the result that students who adopted this approach were quickly frustrated, after which their motivation and ability to progress positively toward solutions plummeted. Students who took the time to read the chapters first had markedly different outcomes. I expect that there are positive feedbacks here, that is, certain types of of study habits and outcomes reinforce each other.

    I can’t claim that this divergence in behaviors is due to the medium–students could act the same way with either paper or pdf–but I wonder if there is something about time scale and expectations for rewards. Do students expect more rapid returns than are possible if you have to read the whole chapter (or a whole book) before engaging in work that generates a reward? Has the expectation for rapid feedback and rapid reward changed over time? I’m thinking a bit about “clickers,” frequent quizzing, and so on. Do we reinforce this shallow reading by behaviors of our own?


  13. In defense of the microfilm… After some serious experimentation, I have come to the conclusion that microfilm is the superior format for reading old newspapers, for those of us for not searching for specific keywords and who want to work as quickly as possible. If you are, say, looking for something like representations of crime or masculinity or foreign policy in a long run of newspapers and want to be comprehensive, then keyword searching often won’t work as you can’t predict every keyword. This requires you to actually go through all the papers. Digitised papers are not designed to do this and are very slow and clunky when you try to read page after page for little reward. They really only work well for reading individual articles (and let’s not talk about how horrendous the keyword searching is on papers before about 1800).

    Codex, while a superior reading experience, tends to require you to stand so that you can read both the top and bottom of the page, and the delicate pages necessitate you turning pages slowly and carefully. Once you want to record the data, codex often requires you to perform regular squats whilst typing as you try to read the top of the page and record at the same time. This becomes slow and tiresome, although your thighs might appreciate the pay-off. (I’ve yet to find an archive that lets you photograph the codex newspapers).

    Microfilm however can be scrolled through quickly whilst you scan the page for relevant info and you can print those pages with relevant stuff. If you’re skint, you can adjust the height of the page when typing your findings so less need for squats. It’s both comprehensive and relatively quick compared to other methods.


  14. While I understand this, the teacher seems to be ignoring students with print disabilities including dyslexia, visual impairment, and blindness. Digital books can make a huge difference to accessibility for these students.


  15. I hadn’t thought about the visually disabled students w/r/t an e-books ban that both Shaz and PeggySu raise. But, like the vast majority of professors, perhaps Broussard makes exceptions to class/syllabus rules for students with documented disabilities. (At least, I do.)

    I’m not prohibitionist when it comes to e-books, mostly because most of my students (all but 3 or 4 in the past 2-1/2 or 3 years) use books and access articles the old-fashioned way. But if my classes were being disturbed by the demands of e-book technology the way that Broussard reports, I’d certainly consider it.


  16. I tell my students how I read. That is, much of my pleasure reading is on my iPad, Our library has lots do eb books, and it’s great when you want a quick reference. (writing a new lecture @ 10 PM? I *love* ebooks then!). But if I really need to read a book and grasp it’s argument, I order it on ILL. Similarly, we have no print journals in our library, so I read journals on line and save PDFs. But when I’m writing, and dealing with an argument in an article, I print it out. Which is another way of saying that there are multiple ways to read, and it might even help our students to point that out.


  17. Most def.–I believe I will share Broussard’s article with my students next week. They seem interested when I talk about pedagogy in class and like thinking about the things that help them learn better (or worse).


  18. This is fascinating. But it’s also something I probably wouldn’t have agreed with until I started grad school, and it’s really your point that e-readers are inadequate for critical reading that strikes home. My first semester as a grad student was filled with constant reading-system experiments: notes by hand on notebook paper, notes in margins of the book, notes directly to the word processor, and so on, trying to figure out what worked the best.

    One of my worst decisions was when I decided to read an assigned monograph on my Kindle one week (to save money of course). Besides being completely unable to follow along in discussion the most frightening aspect of e-reading was that I couldn’t visualize (which Broussard alludes to) the physical dimensions of the book–I never realized how necessary, at least for me, and I’m sure others, it is to the understanding of complex arguments to do so in terms of physical space. It was those mental markers–the fatness of the book in my right hand as I read the introduction versus the thinness in my left–which slowly changed as I waded through the text that allowed me to process the material. I think it’s that tangible aesthetic that helps cognitive functioning that I’m not sure if e-reading will be able to overcome in the near future.


  19. Joel–welcome, and I think your experiences are terrific illustrations of the issues Broussard raises with e-books. We’d all–or most of us–love it if they had the same functionality, but they just don’t, especially for difficult intellectual work and learning.

    I find your discussion of the tactile effects of codex v. e-book entirely persuasive–I think you’ve articulated something I’ve sensed myself, but haven’t been able to explain. As Susan says above–e-books are great when you’re writing or revising a lecture on the fly and want to make sure it’s up-to-date, but when it comes to really assimilating an argument and factual information, they’re not so great.


  20. There’s an interesting essay by an academic librarian in the NYT “Sunday Review” section today about the practice of marginal annotation and the like in library-owned books, and the conflicting interests of students, faculty, and other I’m struggling not to say “stakeholders.” To me it was refreshing to hear him not saying, “books, shmooks, who needs ’em, an old practice-of-literacy technology, it’s really about informatics, plus of course cool group study spaces.” When somebody whips out a yellow marker and begins annotating that annoying kid at the end of the table who keeps reciting from _Catcher in the Rye_, that’s when it will hit the fan.


Let me have it!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.