Anne-Marie Chase reports on a review of research into the formal use of e-texts within educational settings.
A recent systematic review of interdisciplinary research into e-text uses and capabilities has found that training and personal development are vital if e-texts are to support successful learning.
In educational settings, the term ‘e-texts’ encompasses an array of online readings and text-based resources that students may use together with, or instead of, ‘traditional’ print-based media.
While we commonly think of e-texts as simply print-based textbook content that has been converted or created for online use and made available for a variety of digital devices, the medium is evolving as academic publishers add more innovative functions, including speech, outlining tools, quizzes, video libraries and sharing via social media platforms.
The increasing use of e-texts in higher education, in conjunction with a dramatic rise in the adoption of blended learning, has led to a growing need for awareness of the affordances of various available technologies and how technology use can optimise learning through its alignment with evidence-based practice.
Digital versus print
Most of the studies included in the review approached e-texts as a distinct contrast to print-based texts, pitting one against the other and questioning the effectiveness of e-texts as a learning tool. In the context of this apparent division, an overwhelming number of studies reviewed suggest that print-based texts contribute more to increased comprehension and recall than e-texts.
Navigation, display and scrolling were identified as possible factors affecting reading comprehension, with e-texts seen as inferior to print-based texts in each of these respects. It is important to acknowledge, though, the ever-growing diversity of devices that can be used to read e-texts and the differences in navigation, display and scrolling between them.
For instance, scrolling is not required when using specifically designed e-readers such as the Kindle or Kobo. Further, these types of e-readers are not internally lit in the way that smartphones and tablets are and therefore do not strain the eyes.
Technical factors aside, personal preference is another significant factor in the effectiveness of e-texts for learning. Students may be more likely to engage with and perceive as useful technologies with which they are already familiar. Alternatively, based on their prior experiences, they may have a strong preference for print-based texts.
Importantly, studies have found that using a student’s preferred platform does not necessarily equate with increased comprehension, but also that a higher level of familiarity with a particular platform is linked to better reading comprehension.
Finally, studies focused on instructor use of the teaching and learning features of e-texts show that feedback functions can lead to higher-level learning, while engagement analytics offer a way of predicting student outcomes.
So, while the research tends to draw a clear line between e-texts and print-based texts as two separate aspects of learning that do not overlap, the complexities of the learner experience suggest any distinctions between the two are a little more blurry.
Training students and teachers
Since students’ perceptions of e-texts, as well as their familiarity with, personal preference for and even bias towards print-based texts, likely have the strongest effect on how they successfully engage with e-texts, training and personal development therefore emerge as key aspects of any future e-text learning initiative.
To optimise learning outcomes, both students and teaching staff may need to be trained in the use of e-texts. Students need to be taught how to use a variety of available technological features and to develop strategies that suit their personal reading experiences of e-texts, while teachers may need time for collaboration and resource development in addition to technical assistance.
Professional learning should also assist teachers to develop language facilitation skills with e-texts, as traditional strategies for reading instruction may not necessarily be transferable from print to e-text. This need for training and professional development is present across all education levels.
An instructor-centric approach to studying e-texts in education, exploring instructor choices for pedagogical uses of e-texts and how those choices align with instructor teaching philosophy or attitudes to educational technology, has the potential to uncover useful information to guide future training and development. ■
Read the full article:
‘Print versus digital texts: understanding the experimental research and challenging the dichotomies’ by Bella Ross, Ekaterina Pechenkina, Carol Aeschliman and Anne-Marie Chase; Research in Learning Technology; Vol. 25 (2017).