Pandemic showed print superior to screen

John Richard Schrock“/>
John Richard Schrock


Over the last two and a half years, evidence piled up indicating that for the vast majority of K–12 and university students, online learning with extensive screen time was a disaster. Learning loss was greater in math subjects where daily lessons are needed to build math skills, but loss was even greater in the sciences where lab and field experiences are needed to make concepts meaningful.

While this learning loss varied, with only a few students maintaining normal progress due to their intellectual nature and extra parental support. The data as well as teacher testimonials showing a dramatic overall slowdown in learning filled the pages of both Education Week and Chronicle of Higher Education, the weekly newspapers-of-record for K–12 and higher education.

Nevertheless, those publications as well as other media are filled with even more advertising, futuristic calls to utilize more computers in the classroom, continuing messages similar to “you can’t teach tomorrow’s students with today’s technology.” The educational technology complex that predicted handheld screens would end all need of printed books by 2015 and end brick-and-mortar schools long before now. In his last days in office, President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the “military industrial complex.” If he were alive today, he might very well add the “education technology complex.”

The dangers of replacing proven effective teaching and printed books with on-screen methodology have long been detailed by a series of academic books summarizing the problems with digital screen formats: “Mind Over Machine: The Power of Human Intuition and Expertise in the Era of the Computers by Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus (1986); “Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds—and What We Can Do About it” by Jane Healy (1998); “Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom” by Larry Cuban (2001); “The Flickering Mind: The False Promise of Technology in the Classroom and How Learning Can Be Saved” by Todd Oppenheimer (2003); “What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr (2010); “Mindless: Why Smarter Machines are Making Dumber Humans” by Simon Head (2014) and many others.

Four decades of research has been conducted. A meta-analysis is an overall analysis of the many published research articles in a field, and a total of three meta-analyses have been conducted: “Reading on Paper and Digitally: What the Past Decades of Empirical Research Reveal” by Singer and Alexander , The Journal of Experimental Education, 85: 155-172 (2016); “Don’t Throw Away Your Printed Books: A Meta-analysis on the Effects of Reading Media on Reading Comprehension” by Delgado et al., Educational Research Review, 25: 23-38 (2018); and “Reading from Paper Compared to Screens: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis” by Clinton in Journal of Research in Reading 42(2): 288-324 (2019). All found comprehension and distraction problems with screen reading that the industry has never addressed. And now these last years of pandemic have provided a massive field test confirming face-to-face teaching and reading printed books is superior for the majority of students.

At the university level many publishers have faced the fact that they only make money on a new printed textbook the first semester it is released. The used book market provides students with the print that they overwhelmingly prefer. One strategy was to publish new editions each few years despite such updates not being needed. Then many publishers offered the texts slightly cheaper but only online and with access suspended at the end of the semester. Students printed it off in order to do “deep reading” on paper. Now one publisher has speculated on using NFTs (non-fungible tokens) in order to claim some profit each time a book is sold, similar to a new trend for artwork.

Now we also face a most serious threat from libraries discarding printed books under the assumption that everything is now available in online archives, which is not true. This danger was clearly documented back in 2003 in the journal Science in “Going, Going, Gone: Lost Internet References” by Dellavalle et al. and updated in “Dozens of Scientific Journals Have Vanished From the Internet, and No One Preserved Them” by Brainard in Science September 8, 2020. Acid-free paper can last up to 500 years while digital archives—when they exist—must be migrated up every decade.

Following the pandemic, other countries have moved back to face-to-face teaching and students using printed books. Many schools in the US have chosen to ignore these lessons.

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John Richard Schrock has trained biology teachers for more than 30 years in Kansas. He also has lectured at 27 universities during 20 trips to China. He holds the distinction of “Faculty Emeritus” at Emporia State University.

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