What’s Next in Digital Reading?

The history of digital reading in a fascinating one and I believe exploring its development arc helps predict the trends that may lie ahead. Thinking about what worked early on – meaning what was read in digital form – use cases where search, find, and quick read were the primary means of interacting with the content, such as encyclopedias and reference works, directories and other data driven compendia.

This was brilliantly summarized in 2003 by Niko Pfund, OUP’s VP of Academic and Trade Publishing, when he referred to this kind of reading as “extractive, as opposed to immersive.” Extractive reading is an extension of search – its primarily purpose is to “extract” information from searched databases. Extractive reading is easily done on any backlit LCD screen because it does not require long stretches of deep reading – which most people found uncomfortable on a computer. Extractive reading is, by far, the dominant form of reading today, as the vast cloud of content that is the Internet is primarily a cloud of extractive reading.

Pedagogic reading is different than extractive and immersive reading even though it contains both extractive and immersive qualities.

Immersive reading – the exercise of deep reading that is dominated by narrative prose and requires a significant investment of time and concentration – poses a difficult challenge in the digital environment. Back-lit flickering LCD screens offer a terrible immersive reading experience as anything from a five hundred-page treatise to a 200-page spy novel are equally unpleasant on an LCD screen for long stretches of time.

And it wasn’t for a lack of trying. For over 10 years there were hundreds of attempts to push ebooks forward. And during those years there were devoted and passionate ebook readers – especially in genres such as sci-fi and romance. This proved that there are folks out there who feel comfortable reading immersive content on an LCD screen. Yet, no matter how much push by ebook supporters or publishers or device makers or software companies, no matter how much debate about DRM and its supposed stifling effect on the market, nothing worked for ebooks until Amazon launched the Kindle.

Before November 19, 2007, (Kindle launch date) digital immersive reading was a wee tiny fraction of a fraction of print based reading. However, within a year of the Kindle launch we saw for the first time, true scale being achieved with ebooks. Marrying Amazon’s retail expertise with technology that mimics black ink on white paper, and topping it off with free, seamless, ubiquitous, untethered wireless connectivity is an unbeatable combination.

Ebooks and digital immersive reading suddenly made sense as immersive reading found a digital platform (ebooks on an e-ink screen) that was widely accepted by the average person. Born 10 years prematurely, ebooks were released from the digital reading hospital’s NICU unit, and finally came home. Today, only the most thickly entrenched demagogues deny the evidence that the Kindle is a wildly popular device selling in the millions of units that has launched an entire new industry of e-ink (and LCD) readers.

So today there are two successful areas of digital reading – extractive and immersive. Yet there are still frontiers to be opened – most notably in the arena that print textbooks now occupy. I call this type of reading, pedagogic reading.

Pedagogic reading is different than extractive and immersive reading even though it contains both extractive and immersive qualities. Pedagogic reading is reading that is done to explicitly train the brain using building blocks of information that can be recalled and applied to do higher levels of thinking and learning. Pedagogic reading is learned at the first stages of our reading experience, as it is how we learn to read. We read pedagogically first, then we learn move onto immersive and extractive reading.

Pedagogic reading has had the least success in digital form for a variety of reasons. Some feel there haven’t yet been the right devices on the market. Others ascribe the problem to textbook publishers and their inability to innovate. Still others see it as generational and when most educators are “born digital” the system will change. I think these are all contributing factors but not the key issue.

In the most reductive terms – pedagogic reading is designed to train, not immerse. It is designed to move a reader through a series of deeper understandings of a topic, by building on a fairly specific sequence of learning objectives. Pedagogic reading, throughout the history of print has been a progressive and linear experience. Deconstruct any chapter in a textbook and you will find the following elliptical structure:

  • Chapter Objectives (Tell them what they are going to learn)
  • Sequential Lessons (Teach the learning objectives)
  • Chapter Review (Tell them what they just learned)

Some aspects of pedagogic reading are extractive (such as objectives and review) and some aspects are immersive (such as the lessons), and combined they are neither fish nor fowl. Pedagogic reading in print is a linear experience due to the nature and limitations of print. This is the most significant difficulty for digital pedagogic reading to overcome its print legacy.

Print legacy is an albatross around the neck of all forms of digital reading. Printed extractive content went through the expensive process of conversion to XML and metadata creation and books had to be digitized and converted into a standard platform that enable scalable fonts and flow through pagination. Pedagogic reading has some of the same issues – but it has a much more difficult and expensive problem to overcome – the linear aspect of print textbooks.

Textbooks are linear because they have to be. How else can a print work operate other than from the beginning to the end, unless it is an A to Z reference or a directory organized in some taxonomic fashion? Students need to start a class at the beginning of a text and end up at the end of the book when the class is complete. The standard textbook opens with the foundational building blocks and ends with advanced topics, which tie together the basics and form the upper floors of learning. This is true in nearly any topic from anatomy to zoology, from Aramaic to Zoroastrianism.

The basic assumption of each text is that students all come in at or near the same level and leave at or near the same level. There is no other cost effective way for a textbook to work. Customizing content for every student is not feasible in the print world – but in a digital world, learning tools do not have to assume everyone is at the same starting point nor does it have to pace learning at the same rate.

Digital learning is not pedagogic reading, but rather pedagogic reading is only part of what digital learning can offer. Digital learning can provide continuous assessment, remediation, advanced learning tools, integrated reference and multimedia.

For example, imagine a digital algebra textbook that opens with an adaptive assessment tool that determines how much prior knowledge and skills a student brings to the work. If the student is weak in certain areas, remediation can be delivered before the algebra work is started. If she is highly proficient, she could be delivered a sped up curriculum allowing her to get ahead and advance more quickly.

In this way digital learning opens up huge and fundamental challenges to the entire learning establishment – from the schools through the textbook publishers. Current systems of classroom management are mightily challenged by 2 or 3 sets of student paces – imagine all 50 students in a classroom progressing at their own pace.  And where our methods of teaching are challenged so too is the publishing world. No textbook publisher can drop its enormous investment in legacy print programs and invest the ungodly amounts it would take to build systems and platforms to deliver true digital learning.

So the fate of pedagogic reading rests not so much on the success of devices or platforms that students will buy into, but more in the ability of the educational ecosphere to adapt the systems of teaching and textbooks to the potential that digital learning holds. This isn’t to say there won’t be successful endeavors taking linear textbook content and adapting them to digital – there will be plenty of success for platforms and products such as the iPad and the eDGe.  However, their level of success will be limited to the commercial viability of digital pedagogic reading – not the true potential that digital learning holds.

In my next piece I will follow up with an exploration of the coming changes I see to the college textbook market (The iPad – Gateway Drug to Digital Learning?)

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5 Replies to “What’s Next in Digital Reading?”

  1. Thank you for this post.

    Re: “The basic assumption of each text is that students all come in at or near the same level and leave at or near the same level.”

    Having taught a foreign language from various textbooks, I can say that there is no class in which everyone is assumed to be at exactly the same level, though it is perhaps always a quixotic hope. The teacher inevitably makes adjustments for as many students as possible. FL textbooks are designed to be used in precisely this way. Many include sets of questions in the introduction to help the student determine what to work on, as well as tests at the end of chapters. Students naturally learn to work with the textbook at their own pace. A good teacher expects more from advanced students and recognizes real progress in the less advanced students.

    I’m not sure there is anything earth-shattering a digital book can bring to *this aspect* of the textbook. It is up to the author to create a pedagogically sound design, and up to the teacher to coach the students on how to use the textbook.

    One way a digital approach might address the problem of different levels of ability is a kind of rental or buy-in to a whole set of textbooks, so the student is free to move forwards and backwards through the material preceding and subsequent to the class.

    But even this may be resisted by educators. After all, the student is always free to go to the library for more material, or to work with a tutor if they are behind. The whole point of a class is to be working together on a subject, to be on the same page. That motivates less advanced students to catch up, and it helps the ‘advanced’ students to solidify material of which they may not yet have a perfect grasp.

  2. Very thoughtful and original post. You make a critical point that textbooks matched the ecosystem of learning: one class moving at a constant speed from a common starting point to a common ending point. And clearly, digital change enables our learning materials, at least, to be much more nuanced than that.

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