Paper and digital will converge on the road to better learning

Read Time 7 Mins
Learning & Development

Paper and digital learning may be taking separate routes, but they’re heading toward the same goals.

In some ways, comparing student performance in digital assessments versus paper-based ones is like asking whether a motorist from 1987 is a better or worse driver than a motorist from 2017. If the vehicles they drive were built with different capabilities and functions, then the skills of both drivers are bound to reflect this.

For instance, it’s likely that a driver from 1987 will be better at manually switching gears than a motorist from 2017 who’s used to driving an automatic. Yet the latter could probably get from point A to point B more quickly thanks to a satellite navigation system that guides the owner along the fastest route to their destination – an advantage that relies on the driver knowing how to use satnav technology.

Because of the differences between the cars, swapping the two drivers would be fruitless as each would struggle to adapt to the new and unfamiliar set up.

To date, the research on paper-based versus digital assessment has encountered similar difficulties, with the published results giving a predictably unclear picture of their comparative efficacy.

Paper-based v digital assessment – what the research says

You might not think it so unclear if looking at the results of studies such as that in Rhode Island where researchers found that over 42% of students who took the PARCC English/language arts exam on paper earned a score of “proficient” compared to just 34% of students who took the test by computer.

Nor might it appear particularly hazy given the coverage of a study carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology confirming that digital devices in the classroom “have a substantial negative effect on academic performance”. Indeed, even a headline in The Guardian seemed ready to triumphantly declare technology’s failure in education.

The problem with this is that the research doesn’t offer simple answers. In fact, far from it – digging a little deeper only seems to reveal a more complicated picture that needs further investigation.

Take, for instance, a paper published in the British Journal of Education Technology in 2002, in which US researchers found that high-performing undergraduate students did better in computer-based assessments than they did on paper. A similar pattern was found in a later study on German medical undergraduates. Students taking tests on computers were able to complete their tasks in a shorter period of time (particularly the high performers), while low-performing students were more likely to guess their answers on computers than they were on paper.

Though we may yearn for a simple answer as to which is best, it’s clearly not all bad or good on either side. The results are a mixed bag at best. But while the disparities are confusing, a closer reading of the research reveals certain points of convergence that are important.

Digital natives, digital novices

Chief among these is the influence of the “testing effect”. This suggests that the results of a test may be dramatically affected by the form that the test itself takes.

A student who is unfamiliar with a computer or digital medium would be less likely to do as well taking a digital assessment as they would using a more familiar medium such as paper. It may seem an obvious point to make, but it is also a crucial one.

Students unfamiliar with digital tech are less likely to do as well taking digital assessments. Click To Tweet

This was evident in the large-scale writing assessment administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2011 where a lack of system familiarity revealed itself to be key component in explaining student performance.

The results of the assessment, which measured the scores of 8th and 12th graders, found that high-performers were far more likely to have regular access to computers both in and out of the classroom. The results likewise showed a correlation between students from low-income backgrounds and limited computer use at school. Additionally, there was also a link between a student’s home computer use and their parent’s level of education: the lower their attainment, the fewer opportunities their children had to access computers for writing assignments.

To put all this another way, low income and a lack of opportunities are the major contributors to the widening achievement gap. If students do not have access to technology, how could they possibly be expected to perform as well on it as those that do?

The problems that poor habituation cause were made even clearer in a follow-up assessment in 2012 of 4th grade students. A report on the results found that students used to working on paper were “unaware of standard [computer] symbols for editing and formatting, such as icons for copy and paste, indent, bold, italics, and underline”. With their cognitive resources spent dealing with unfamiliar facilitative skills (keyboarding and word processing) the actual target skills the assessment was meant to measure (language facility, idea organization and development) were negatively impacted.

Low income and lack of opportunity are the major contributors to education's achievement gap. Click To Tweet

It seems familiarity is the core sticking point in effectively measuring digital’s efficacy in assessment. As the authors of the aforementioned British Journal paper observed: “as students become as familiar with computer-based testing as they are with paper-based testing, the test mode effect should decrease or disappear.”

But it isn’t just navigating unfamiliar features that could affect performance – other digital elements that could affect a student’s cognitive load include things like screen size, resolution, and font characteristics. As with much else in digital learning, however, fresh insights are only gained by addressing existing blind spots. The report acknowledges as much by suggesting areas for further examination such as the extent to which facilitative skills differ at grades 4, 8, and 12. Or even how they might be different across other computer-based subject other computer devices such as tablets.

Familiarity as a first step to better digital learning

Yet increasing student familiarity with digital is only one part of the solution. Bringing technology to the classroom does not equate to student success without some kind of strategy to guide its usage.

Reports such as that in The Guardian makes this quite evident – provided of course that readers manage to get past the headline and engage with the content. If they did, they would read statements from the report’s authors, such as the following:

“In a learning environment with lower incentives for performance, fewer disciplinary restrictions on distracting behaviour, and larger class sizes, the effects of internet-enabled technology on achievement may be larger due to professors’ decreased ability to monitor and correct irrelevant usage.”

Does it seem reasonable or even sensible to hold technology’s feet to the fire for poor student performance in classrooms that are admittedly already disincentivized, undisciplined, overcrowded, and poorly monitored?

Of course what the report was trying to highlight was that digital devices may offer an additional distraction in environments that are susceptible to them. This is no doubt true, but only when digital technology is not being properly implemented to begin with. The more students are engaged in lessons, the less likely it is that they’ll fall under the sway of distraction. On this point, teachers have the greatest authority, as recently expressed in an article that appeared in The Economist:

“Handled poorly, devices can distract. A Portuguese study from 2010 found that schools with slow broadband and a ban on sites such as Youtube had better results than high-tech ones … What matters is how edtech is used.”

“Handled poorly, devices can distract. What matters is how edtech is used.” Click To Tweet

The same article goes on to articulate how teachers also have the greatest responsibility:

“In 2015 a vast study of 1,200 education meta-analyses found that, of the 20 most effective ways of boosting learning, nearly all relied on the craft of a teacher.”

Yet without a deeper understanding of how technology can be used, or how its use should differ from that of paper, there will be no consensus on how to get the most from digital learning and assessment.

Changing aptitudes by changing attitudes

Perhaps the biggest difference in how people approach the two mediums is in their attitude. Paper has earned its trust among readers since all were born into a world that was already filled with books and other printed material. Digital, on the other hand, is something that arose and was adopted during our lifetimes. It also continues to evolve at an incredible rate. So while the human brain has had plenty of time to adapt to a long-established format, it has had far less time to accept or even understand the newer medium.

As a result, the brain has wired itself to work well with paper. “The brain essentially regards letters as physical objects because it does not have any other way of understanding them,” wrote Ferris Jabr in Scientific American.

Indeed, the overall physicality of reading on paper has a huge neurological influence. So much so that the two seem inextricably linked:

“The brain literally goes through the motions of writing when reading, even if the hands are empty … it may also perceive a text in its entirety as a kind of physical landscape. When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.”

Digital technology will be a simple fact of life for all future generations. Click To Tweet

Jabr also cites a number of studies that support the notion that readers prefer paper-based texts for closer reading to better understand information. Other research found that those who read material on paper could digest it more easily and recall it more readily later on. One possible explanation for this is that screen reading is more mentally tiring. Prolonged exposure to artificial light, pixilation, and glare can cause eye strain and headaches. In addition, having to navigate through a digital text can deplete available mental resources.

Another possible reason is simply one of approach: readers are more likely to treat screen-based text as disposable as they feel little or no ownership of it. As Jabr puts it: “people do not always bring as much mental effort to screens in the first place. Subconsciously, many people may think of reading on a computer or tablet as a less serious affair.”

This should hardly be surprising given that any web-connected device affords access to near-unlimited information. They can also interact more with the device itself. In a survey by San Jose State University, researchers reported that digital distraction reared its head again as screen readers spent more time browsing and scanning than their paper-reading peers.

Other experiments found that when students are given less time to perform tasks, and thus required to concentrate more, those using computers and paper performed equally well. It was only when given more time that students were more inclined to indulge digital distractions.

Visual elements of digital learning
Digital adds myriad new elements that can completely transform the reading experience, as seen in the NYT’s “Snow Fall“, in which reporter John Branch tells the harrowing story of skiers caught in an avalanche through a blend of visuals, audio, and traditional text-based storytelling.

But attitudes and behaviors are changing, technology is improving, and brains are adapting. Many of today’s learners have grown up with digital technology, and it will be a simple fact of life for all generations to come. The physical presence of paper offers a tangibility that digital cannot – and should not – attempt to recreate. Yet paper cannot compete with the myriad functions that digital offers. Existing generations might see paper and digital media as antagonists, but users who have grown up using both will be comfortable accessing the benefits of both.

Paper and digital can be perfectly complementary mediums for learning. Click To Tweet

Sticking to their own lanes, paper and digital can be perfectly complementary mediums for learning. The former may well be a better bet for retaining information and a sense of physical “ownership” of knowledge; the latter can continue to explore new ways of engaging and testing other cognitive functions such as creativity and critical thinking skills.

Learning and assessment will surely continue to evolve in both digital and non-digital forms, but they needn’t to do so in isolation. Why should they even evolve in competition when cooperation seems a much better option for all?

“When it comes to intensively reading long pieces of plain text, paper and ink may still have the advantage,” writes Jabr. “But text is not the only way to read.”

Or to learn.

Micheál Heffernan

Senior Editor

More articles from Micheál

Let’s make it official

Get behind the scenes at Learnosity with quarterly insights, inspiration, and updates.