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Pixels or Pages?

The art of reading in the digital age

By Carolyn Supinka

pixels or pages

If you ask a friend what they’ve been reading lately, you might also ask how they have been reading: print or online? According to Naomi Baron, linguistics professor and executive director of AU’s Center for Teaching, Research, and Learning, medium matters. An expert on language and learning, Baron has written extensively about how reading online versus print differs. She’s published her findings in the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker, and she has discussed her work as a guest on Good Morning America, ABC News 20/20, CNN, and NPR’s Diane Rehm Show and All Things Considered.

“The humanities are rooted in texts,” Baron says. “Whether we are talking about Milton’s Paradise Lost or Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, there is logic to the whole. The works we tend to revere for their eloquence and their wisdom demand their reader’s focused and prolonged attention; the challenge of reading in a digital world is competition for our minds.”

Though Baron acknowledges the convenience and economic benefits of reading digitally, her research suggests that print helps readers to retain more information. It also discourages multitasking, like checking email or Facebook, which tends to distract online readers.

“College students in my studies were two or three times more likely to be multitasking when they read on digital devices as when they read in print,” Baron says. “Multitasking dramatically undermines concentration. When we interrupt one task to move even briefly to another, it takes time and effort to refocus on the original activity. The problem is particularly severe when the distractors are digital. It’s one thing to interrupt your reading to get a cup of coffee; it’s another to stop reading War and Peace to play Candy Crush.”

Baron finds connections between her classroom experience at AU and her research. “I follow similar strategies when I am preparing to teach a course and when I initiate a new research project,” Baron says. “I begin by asking myself, What do I want to know? What do I want others to know?”

In her latest book, Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World (Oxford University, 2015), Baron presents findings from her research—including the surprising statistic that 92 percent of university students prefer reading print. The book examines how new developments in technology have changed the definition of reading and analyzes what the future might bring.

As for Baron’s personal preferences about reading for pleasure? “My tool of choice is print,” she says. “I read all day on my computer, on my phone, when using public transport, or while sitting in waiting rooms. But print remains my choice at home.”