We live in an age of screens, from smartphones and tablets to video instruction and other forms of eLearning. Our attention span has gotten shorter as we move from one tweet to the next, and short, in-your-face videos as opposed to pages and pages of written text. But does that mean text as a medium is dead? Far from it. While we do have to change our approach to the written word to encompass our new devices, text, as a tangible form, still retains its value.
There is no question that video can be a powerful instructional tool, especially for visual learners. Students can directly view complex processes, and they can review the material as many times as they need to in order to absorb the content. According to Galbraith (2004), “the interactive features of modern web-based media players can be used to promote ‘active viewing’ approaches with students.” In addition, Willmot et al (2012) provided strong evidence that video not only “inspires and engages students,” but it can increase student motivation, develop the potential for deeper content learning, and create further learning opportunities.
eLearning best combats the diminishing attention span by not fighting against it at all. Online platforms that shift between the use of games, quizzes, and other interactive tools can engage students fairly constantly. That “chunks” information into a format that catches students’ attention in an enjoyable way, similar to the way they interact with the online and mobile games they play on their own time. The number of students who read for pleasure, especially when the text is not connected to the pervasive online environment, has steadily declined as the accessibility to information online has increased. Simply trying to force text on these students, either in class or as outside assignments, ends up being counterproductive.
AceReader, though a reading fluency program, recognizes this movement towards a virtual environment and limits long, narrative passages. Instead, it provides short comprehension tests, engaging drills, and interactive games in easy-to-digest segments to help improve students’ reading fluency and comprehension.
There are, however, three solid reasons why text matters even in the online classroom. First, the bulk of the world’s accumulated knowledge — everything from poetry to stories, history, and inventions — are stored in text format. They form the foundation upon which all eLearning is based. Second, in most of the courses offered online around the world, text is still the primary means of knowledge transfer. And third, as a result of the first two, we need employees, teachers, and everyday citizens to be as critically literate and fluent in the currency of text as they are in that of other media.
Therefore, while we must accept the current digitization of learning, along with its inherently visual and interactive nature, we must also learn how to modify and incorporate text as part of an online classroom’s design. First, text can be limiting when trying to learn specific skills or complex ideas, appealing primarily to logical learners and constrained by the specific meanings and nuances of the words themselves. In addition, text can often be inefficient — instead of showing the idea to be communicated, the reader must first view the written information and then translate it into a mental image for full comprehension. This process can often spell failure for those with difficulty decoding, those who cannot put it all together to form that mental image or derive meaning (Burns & Martinez, 2002, pp. 1-2).
Second, most of us who read online do so poorly as a result of what’s known as “cognitive load,” the cognitive processing demands placed on a person. When we read from a screen, we have to scroll; find out where we were in the text and return to that point; reorient ourselves on the page, etc. The large number of steps clogs our mental bandwidth — we become exhausted and are less likely to remember what we’ve read as a result.
The research clearly supports that we read better from paper than from a screen. (Tufte, 1990; Liu, 2005; Carr, 2011; Wolf, 2018) and Wolf’s (2018) research strongly suggests that students who read text on print are “superior in their comprehension to screen-reading peers, particularly in their ability to sequence detail and reconstruct the plot in chronological order.” One reason for this is that paper is easier to navigate, it provides tactile information, and it provides us with spatial-temporal markers while we read. According to Mangen, Walgermo & Brønnick (2013), “touching paper and turning pages, and especially writing notes (as opposed to typing) aids memory, making it easier to remember what we read and where in the text we read it.” As a result, perhaps it would be prudent to have students print out their most important readings to boost their comprehension. Online instructors are still debating the merits of that suggestion.
When we read online, we tend to spend less time on any given web page than we would a printed page, often hitting only the headings and subheadings; we hyperlink to new sites or pages and never come back to the original content; and, so we can “absorb” large amounts of text as quickly as possible, people who read languages left-to-right tend to follow an “F” pattern. Nielsen & Pernice, 2010, cited in Burns, 2011, p. 144, focused on tracking the eyes while people read online and noted that we begin by reading the first couple of lines of text in their entirety. Then our eyes quickly move down the left-hand part of the screen, using the first word as a kind of shorthand to judge what the remaining information in that sentence might be. Sometimes we’ll read across another line of text part-way down the screen, but then we go back to simply moving down the left-hand side. The end result is information out of context, and an almost complete lack of comprehension of what we just read.
This last occurrence ties in to the third problem with text in an eLearning environment — there is an alteration in the reading process itself. According to Wolf (2018), instead of employing “deep reading” processes — focused, sustained attention to and immersion in the text — online readers defer to shallow reading techniques such as browsing, skimming, scanning for keywords, reading more selectively, and reading non-linearly. In addition, Liu (2005) noted that readers spent much less time focusing on the material and reading actively, as evidenced by re-reading key parts of the text, highlighting, and annotating, even when the digital tools were available for such tasks.
All of these points taken together would seem to sound the death knell of text usage in the online environment, but that is not the case. What we need to do is learn how to make text both accessible and accountable for eLearning. Yes, we may need to shorten paragraphs, use more bullet points, and increase the use of visual aids, but at the same time, we should encourage active reading by providing guided questions to help students make sense of the text and to serve as jump-off points for critical thinking. We also need to test for comprehension, so quizzes and tests should be requisite parts of the teaching plan.
AceReader is a technological tool that ticks all the requisite boxes for an eLearning platform. It allows for the use of guided reading of longer passages with highlighting or word bursts; all of the 260 reading passages in each themed and leveled Test Set come complete with comprehension tests; drills force the reader to move their eyes across each line and not hug the left-hand side; there are games that challenge users on word recognition, context, and comprehension; and students can import longer texts into the program to acclimate themselves better to the online reading environment.
The answer about the functionality of text in the online environment is not to eliminate it but to reshape it according to new technologies and new methods of instruction. Effective communication — and that includes the written word — will always be of paramount importance in every aspect of our lives.
 In Liberatore. (2019). “Pedagogical benefits.” The University of Queensland, Australia: Institute for Teaching and Learning Innovation. Retrieved from http://www.uq.edu.au/teach/video-teach-learn/ped-benefits.html?utm_campaign=elearningindustry.com&utm_source=%2Felearning-changes-way-children-acquire-knowledge&utm_medium=link.
 Lynch, Matthew. (November 11, 2019). “How eLearning Changes the Way Children acquire Knowledge.” The Tech Advocate. Retrieved from https://www.thetechedvocate.org/how-elearning-changes-the-way-children-acquire-knowledge/.
 In Burns, Mary. (April 14, 2019). “To Read or Not to Read: Text in an Online World.” Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/text-in-an-online-world-read.