Reading in a Digital Age of Distractions

This summer, a printed copy of Hope Against Hope: Three Schools, One City, and the Struggle to Educate America’s Children by Sarah Carr was shipped to over 600 new students, including transfer and exchange students.  Copies were also shared with all first year course faculty, student orientation leaders, and members of the President’s Council.  Sharing print copies of books is the basic foundation of our MacReads common reading program, now in its sixth year.  The topic of the book is the educational reform that took place in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  The book was selected based on the International Roundtable theme this year: disparities in education.

While the MacReads program is now in its sixth year, this is only the second time the MacReads selection was connected to the Roundtable theme. Providing incoming students with a book that ties into both the Roundtable and the First Thursday speaker, and provides a good reading experience is not a small challenge. This year, we also created a Moodle course to share information about the reading, provide news of upcoming events, and allow students to share comments based on questions developed by our two faculty members who then led students in a discussion of the book on Monday of Orientation Week. Reading comments posted by students in Moodle, led me to reflect on our common reading program. At the same time, I started reading The Slow Book Revolution: Creating a New Culture of Reading on College Campuses and Beyond, edited by Megan Lacy.  In the introduction the author makes a statement that basically sums up our hope for MacReads: “Reading also helps us connect to others–to the author, to other worlds and cultures, and to other readers–and therefore has the power to bring communities together.” [p.viii].  It is the hope of creating a sense of community for incoming students that drives us in our selection of books for the common reading program.  However, as also pointed out in The Slow Book Revolution, we know that reading habits are changing in our increasingly digital environment. While we hope to create a sense of community among our new students with our MacReads common reading program, once students arrive on campus their focus will be on course readings and textbooks that will require an entirely different reading focus.


As more students enter college having been introduced to reading on tablets or Kindles, as well as their smart phones, we’re interested in tracking how they pursue their course readings.  We’ve long known that students prefer to print out the pdfs of articles they find in our library databases, but what about when reading book-length materials?  The Kindle was introduced in 2007 and iPads in 2010.  These two devices, as well as the ability to read on smartphones, are changing how and when we read as well as what we read.  Reading in a digital format has been the focus of several publications that I reviewed this summer.  Some of the writers focused on the challenge of reading on electronic devices, because it is easy get distracted, whether by links to related materials, or incoming text or email messages, or just the ability to use Google to explore a question raised while reading.  A recent publication, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World by Naomi S. Baron, talks about how technology is changing reading and, as a result, our writing. She also points out the distinction between reading for pleasure versus the concentrated, focused reading for context. Her book is a fascinating study of reading habits and worth taking a slow read through.  In addition, Baron touches briefly on one of the topics related to student reading–a topic that members of the library are starting to explore more closely this year–electronic textbooks.


A variety of studies have been shared in the Chronicle of Higher Education on student preferences for reading print versus electronic textbooks, including  a recent study which closely monitored 17 students and their reading habits.  However, as mentioned earlier, more and more younger students have been introduced to reading online in high schools and elementary schools.  We are curious as to when, or if, the transition may occur when more students find it more natural to read on an electronic device.  It is of particular interest to us, as members of the library continue to explore developing opportunities in the open textbook movement which provides access to freely accessible electronic textbooks. Faced with increasing costs for student textbooks, the open textbook movement is looking for ways to reduce costs and enable students to have the textbooks they need for successfully completing courses.  This is important to the library because we participate in a collaborative program with MCSG that places copies of some of the most expensive textbooks used in courses on Library Reserve. For the fall, $5000 has been spent by MCSG to provide 44 copies of 8 textbooks. This is just a small portion of the textbooks required for courses.


We will continue to follow developments and the debate about whether students prefer print or electronic textbooks.  As the cost for textbooks continue to escalate, we will look for opportunities to collaborate with faculty on finding solutions that meet both teaching and learning needs. Gathering more information on student reading preferences, and on whether or not electronic textbooks provide both the content that is needed as well as a means of economic relief, are areas of interest for the coming year.  Last March, the library and CST co-sponsored a session on open textbooks that resulted in lively conversation among more than 20 participants.  This year, we hope to learn more about our faculty who are currently using electronic textbooks. We also hope to continue conversations, and look for input from faculty on whether there is interest in using or developing open textbooks, and how the library might be able to support Mac’s involvement in the movement. Ron Joslin, Research and Instruction Librarian, will be taking a lead in this area. We welcome comments and questions from faculty if interested in this topic, or if you have experiences to share on using electronic textbooks in your courses.

In the meantime, how was your summer reading experience?  Whether you were reading for scholarship or for pleasure, have you found that digital formats have transformed how you read and retain information?  Do you find reading scholarly articles online different from reading a book online?  And if so, what implications do you see for your students as you assign them readings for your courses?  Please share your comments, continuing this discussion of reading in a digital age of distractions.

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