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Questions and news stories continue to rumble around the Internet on the virtues of printed books over e-books, and vice-versa, for learning. The most recent piece of research I’ve come across is from Anne Mangan of the University of Stavanger in Norway, whose work was reported in the Guardian back in August, but which seems to have reached the Daily Mail only a couple of days ago.

What Mangan’s work appears to show (I haven’t seen the full paper yet) is that, when presented with a short story, those who read the print version were better at reconstructing the timing of the plot than those who read the electronic version. Now, I don’t know about you, but when reading any fiction in print or on the iPad, I don’t spend a lot of time trying to reconstruct the plot and making the leap from this finding to the proposition, made by some, that learning will be adversely affected seems to me a jump too far. Our motivations for reading vary and we bring different degrees of concentration to the task, depending upon what we need to do.

When reading fiction, our concentration is affected, I think, by the extent to which the story grips our imagination. If the grip is tight we find it difficult to let go and will read all night to finish the story – whether in print or as an e-book. I recall, when I got the Sony e-Reader some years ago, trying to turn the page with my finger because I’d forgotten I was reading on the device. Similarly, when we read to revise for an examination most of us will also be making notes, comparing a text with our notes and engaging with the issue we are trying to master – the stronger the motivation in these circumstances, the stronger our attention will be.

There is also the question of learning styles to be taken into account – and I have yet to see any research on this issue that considers this factor. Some people learn best when text is complemented by audio or images, some learn best of all by listening rather than reading (dyslexics, for example), others may learn best of all when the material is presented in many different ways. Until the learning styles of the experiment participants are included I think one can say very little about the generality of the results.

Certainly, there are features (affordances in the jargon) of the printed text that are difficult to replicate in the electronic version, but there are also affordances possible with the e-version that are unattainable with the printed version. It would be interesting, I think, to test these propositions with the print version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Touch Press’s app of the same poem. The printed version gives us the text, the app gives us the text, Eliot’s original manuscript with its notes and emendations, the poem read by the author, and commentary by scholars. I don’t know what the outcome would be if these two versions were given to two groups of English Literature students reading for their final examinations, in which the poem was known to be featuring, but I know which I would prefer.

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