We’ve long known that when games and other enhancements are added to ebooks they can distract readers from paying attention to the text, and now it appears that enhancements can have a negative academic impact.
Researchers at West Chester University have published a paper which looks at the impact of using digital textbooks on iPads. In a small study they found that students’ reading comprehension was higher when they read conventional books than when they read enhanced ebook. In a second related study the researchers discovered that the students “often skipped over the text altogether”.
The Schugars, a husband-and-wife research team at West Chester University, have been researching this topic for the past 3 plus years. They’ve published numerous papers, including one which I wrote about back in 2012. That paper discussed a study which showed that college students who read on ebook readers performed better on tests than the related group of students who read paper books. That is a markedly different outcome from the two most recent studies, both of which focused on students reading on tablets.
The first study compared students reading ebook apps downloaded from app stores like iTunes to students reading paper books. It focused on just 13 middle school students, so it isn’t possible to draw wide conclusions, but what the Schugars found is concerning enough to merit further study. Students showed a noticeably lower level of comprehension when they read on the iPad. The Schugars attributed the difference to the distractions of the enhancements.
In the second study, the researchers observed students in 18 classrooms where iPads and digital textbooks were in common use. The classes were being taught with enhanced digital textbooks created using iBooks Author. While students were “highly motivated by their interactions” with the enhancements found in the ebooks, they also “often skipped over text, where the meat of the information was.”
While it is easy to add game-like elements to ebooks, crafting an enhanced ebook that improves upon the original is much harder. What is more likely to happen is that readers will be distracted from the text, leading to situations like in one study cited by the Schugars, which showed that children spent 43% of their ebook engagement time playing games embedded in the ebooks rather than reading the text.
So is this a sign that enhanced ebooks should be kept out of the classroom? Not exactly.
The researchers also found that some enhancements really did enhance comprehension. The researchers advised parents and educators to avoid enhanced ebooks where the enhancements distract from the text and where the enhancements are time-consuming, lead students away from the page of text they are reading, or don’t contribute academically useful features like understanding difficult vocabulary terms.
“It’s not necessarily that ebooks are bad for reading,” Heather Ruetschlin Schugar said in an interview with Education Week. “But teachers need more strategies for teaching kids to use what they know about reading in an ebook environment.”