John Richard Schrock was a professor of science education at a Emporia State University for many years. He also taught in middle and high schools, as well as in Hong Kong. He frequently writes about education issues.

Screen Reading and Online Coursework Inferior

The forced closure of classrooms and shift to online learning from home has revived the hopes of big Ed-Tech companies that they can regain some legitimacy in education. Meanwhile, the general response of teachers and professors is exposing their extensive negative experiences with distance learning.

In the early 2000s, computer enthusiasts predicted the end of “brick-and-mortar” K-12 schools; students would study from home in their pajamas, using online links to teachers who would also teach from home. New digital readers were predicted to totally replace printed books by 2015. And massive open online colleges (MOOCs) would deliver all coursework online and free, replacing university coursework and making college classrooms obsolete a decade ago.

None of these predictions came true. Our armed forces kept track of their training dropout rate for high school students who graduated from online high schools; they performed as poorly as GED students who never completed genuine high school. Citizens who bought digital book devices temporarily increased but then fell back to a smaller number who found advantages in enlarged texts or backlit nighttime reading for recreation.

But university students need intense “deep reading.” Using on-screen textbooks meant printing off the text to avoid eye strain. The vast majority preferred printed texts for in-depth study and comprehension. Ironically, the high cost of college textbooks was due to the publishers covering the cost of added electronic services. American college textbook publishers ignored student concerns and moved to all-online texts in order to pay for tutors, course outlines, quizzes and testing services as professors were evaluated more on research and less on bothersome teaching.

While K-12 administrators found it easy to buy the latest electronic gadgets and sit youngsters in front of screens to impress naive parents, the actual evaluations of student learning on the NAEP, ACT, SAT and other measures show less, not more learning is occurring with on-screen media.

And while the Chronicle of Higher Education just came out with a clueless recommendation that universities should begin making comparisons of online learning with standard face-to-face teaching, there is already over two decades of solid research. It confirms what most teachers and professors already know: face-to-face teaching and reading-print are clearly superior.

In the last two decades there have been hundreds of rigorous studies comparing reading on screens to reading print. A “meta-analysis” is an analysis of previously published research articles and data, selecting just those studies that meet rigorous research criteria. There have been three major meta-analyses, including “Reading From Paper Compared to Screens: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” by Virginia Clinton and just published in 2019 in the Journal of Research in Reading.

As with the prior studies, she found there was a statistically important benefit to reading print for reading performance, metacognition and efficiency. And despite the fact that online learning using screens has now been in operation in the U.S. for over 20 years, surveys of college professors who have experienced both conventional classroom teaching and online delivery still prefer face-to-face classroom teaching by over two-thirds, a percentage that has not budged for a decade.

We also now know that the student who listens and then writes out class notes understands much more than the student who is transcribing the words they hear a teacher speak onto a laptop, a relatively thoughtless typing process.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) compares educational systems of developed countries and administers the international PISA, a test that involves 15-year-olds across 31 nations. OECD found that students who used computers had both lower reading and math scores. “Those that use the Internet every day do the worst,” said Andreas Schleicher, OECD Director for Education and Skills and author of the report. While that study was published in 2015, the Reboot Foundation released a study in June 2019 that followed up using the most recent data and again found a negative connection between each nation’s performance on the PISA and their students’ use of technology in school. The more they used computer screens in schools, the lower the nation’s rank in educational achievement. In addition, the Reboot Foundation found a negative relationship between using electronic tablets in school and fourth-grade reading scores.

But you do not have to resort to extensive research to know that this shift to distance learning, albeit necessary, will produce minimal outcomes. Every teacher and isolated student knows in these upcoming months that there is far less learning going on.