Books vs. Tablets (Part Two): Cultural Context and Experiential Comparison

Last time, we broached the topic of comparing the value of traditional paperbound texts—books—versus computer tablets. Before making an experiential comparison, let’s look at the cultural context as to why this might even be an issue . . .

Cultural Context

The use of computerized tablets in education is quite new. Let’s take a quick review: prior to the iPad—generally considered the first mass market computer tablet—there were other portable electronic devices that used screens, some used for play and others for work. The first widely accessible handheld devices were used for gaming; such devices, of course, were the next step from desktop computer gaming, which supplanted the rows of pinball machines and the newer arcade games utilizing screens, such as Pac Man. By design, handheld devices promoted mobility and, for their youthful users, an opportunity to fixate on their gaming challenges.

Handhelds used for work were designed for a different target population, an older user juggling a range of responsibilities: witness the birth of the computerized personal assistant. While the Apple Newton is a progenitor in this field, the major player was the Palm Pilot, which stored contact information of colleagues, generate To Do Lists, and to plot activities in a calendar capable of providing audible reminders. The Palm was directly comparable to traditional weekly paper organizers, but with an added function, global search capacity. Soon, as expected, competitors arose from Microsoft, the Palm PC, which I actually used for Palm-like functions but also mobile data entry.  Here, as with desktops, we see the burgeoning field of software companies utilizing host operating systems to create applications, apps, to tailor a handheld device for the user’s needs.

During this time period, a cultural divide began to take shape, between those who embraced the new devices and technologies versus those who did not or, at the very least, those who were grumbling if not fumbling ambivalent users.  The advocates saw themselves carrying the technological flag of the future, while others criticized the use of handheld devices due to cost, durability, and their departure from basic sensibility. As with the rise of most impactful technologies, this divide was temporal, which pitted advocates of “progress” versus those of “tradition.”

This technology advanced, though, and generated what many viewed as a new type of social anxiety: Information Overload. How could one keep up with the explosion of information facilitated by the Internet? Was it any easier that all of this information was funneled and/or compacted into new handheld devices, that is, tablets? While the felt anxiety was real, the claim of it being a new type of anxiety was not. Remember the printing press, for example? There are scholarly articles that discuss the issue of information anxiety back in that period too. In addition to information overload, an associated anxiety was generated due to matters of technological competency.

As a result of this division, the cultural divide fed into a cycle of nostalgia and an appreciation of various retro markets. Think of the appeal of Moleskine notepads. This dynamic, while in part being a temporal, did not and does not fall along generational lines. Tradition, and in the minds of some, the analog, is striking back against the pace of technological process, which fed into the slow living movement, which seeks in part to define one’s sense of sensory appreciation and personal value versus the “speed” of modern living.

Regardless of the cultural divide, computer tablets are here to stay. We use them when swiping our credit cards and penning our signature at the new coffee shop. Indeed, it is most telling, perhaps, that Moleskine, originally founded in 1997 as Modo & Modo, began marketing the means of syncing paper and digital planners.

During the consumer ascendency of computerized personal assistants, there was a similar growth in the worlds of cell phones and laptop computers. Cell phones left their clamshell avatar and began to adopt the features of the computerized personal assistant; similarly, laptops sought to claim the computing power of desktops while maintaining its portable, less hefty profile. It’s not surprising, then, that tablets sought to incorporate elements of the new cell phone and laptops.

Experiential Comparison

The discussion below is neither intended as a scientific study nor a technical analysis; rather, it is solely intended to introduce the types of issues one might consider when actually performing such a study or analysis.

Types of Tablets: To begin our comparison, let’s look at the different types of tablets. The focus will not be on proprietary brands or operating systems; rather, one should look at capabilities. Tablets can be broken down into two primary categories: software application driven tablets with computing power versus tablets that function primarily as “readers,” that is, E-readers. While initially not the case, both categories now have incorporated Internet capacity as one of its primary features.

  • Function
    • Content Delivery: Both books and tablets deliver content, though the former is more closely akin with E-readers. Both may have indices; only tablets have a search capacity (restricted by information format).
    • Bibliographic Sources: Both books and tablets have bibliographic guides or references. Tablets with Internet capacity can access certain sources immediately, and with the rise of Internet features, such as, Google Books, tablets can even access otherwise distant content not available in digital format.
    • Referencing: Tablets with Internet capacity can offer content cross-referencing using hyperlink functions.
  • Physical Character
    • Portability and weight: Books and tablets are comparable in portability. Tablets, however, on the whole will be lighter, especially given its storage capacity. Even a single large academic textbook is likely to be heavy and more of a burden to transport.
    • Durability: Books are more durable than tablets in most ways, including likelihood of significant breakage. While users may be able to retrieve content from a storage area, tablet damage is more financially impactful than damages to books.
    • Storability: Given its digital content format, tablets have far, far more storage capacity than books. Problems exist for storing digital content for long periods of time, but similar albeit different problems exist in storing paper book content for long periods of time.
  • Tactile Character: For individuals who grew up reading paper books, magazines, and newspapers, the tactile character of the text can be extremely important. This is the ineffable feel and sense of the reading material, an element of the book versus tablet comparison that may very well be generational.
    • Engagement of composite text: What is it like to hold the text? One or two handed? At a table or in your chair or on your lap? In many ways, tablets are easier to use, since one need not worry the movement of folding pages; on the other hand, one cannot be as cavalier, as it were, when holding a tablet when compared with a book given the high cost of dropping the tablet.
    • Dexterity and style of manipulation: Manipulating a tablet is as easy as flipping through the pages of a book. Again the preference is likely generational; however, one need not “dog-ear” a book page, if one can simply create a digital bookmark.
    • Use of writing implements: Underlining/highlighting passages and marginalia are the set tools of the trade for any student. For some it might be easier to manipulate using paper texts—the ability to cradle the book and write with precision. But it’s probably only a matter of time until tablets can mimic that sense too. On the other hand, an E-reader can still “mark-up” pages without devaluing the text the way such would do with a paper text. Digital writing implements have gone through an evolution concerning their precision; tablet screens are going through a comparable evolution from resistive touch-screens to capacitive touch-screens. In addition, tablet software has made incredible strides toward handwriting and voice recognition.
    • Sensory tactile sensibility: This, for many, is the deal breaker when looking at the entire comparison. Generally speaking, tablets don’t and had never attempted to mimic the tactile feel of using paper. For those who grew up reading and using print, it is really hard to get over this (though all of them would be happy to give up the paper cuts).
  • Visual Character: Visual character is the most significant element to consider when analyzing books versus tablets in the context of education. The other elements dealt largely dealt with matters of preference, sensibility, and the like. However, visual character—the optical nature of the text—impacts cognition and retention the most. Research on this subject will be dealt with during the final blog. The comparison below concerns paper texts and tablets utilizing LCD screens. E-reader tablets, though, utilizing E-ink technology has proven to be more “paper-like” and less computer-like than LCD tablets.
    • Textual character integrity: To the naked eye, the textual character of tablets is comparable to paper texts. But if looked at in perspective, we understand why the issue exists: the character integrity of early dot matrix printers and/or computer screens was highly flawed by contemporary standards. Depending upon tablet choice, the digital resolution can vary, which can translate into varying ease of reading.
    • Textual contrast: In terms of color composition, tablets and digital imagery can mimic the textual contrast present in paper texts. The residual issue is related to the next, element, how the illuminated nature of the majority of tablets impacts the sensory act of reading.
    • Impact of lighting: Without recounting childhood imperatives about not reading in the dark, lighting is a significant factor for both paper text and tablets. The choice of lighting—incandescent versus florescent—is relevant in consideration of paper text; the nature of the tablet illumination is equally significant. Early computer screens dealt with issues of flickering; while that phenomenon is not an issue with tablets per se, there remains an issue regarding the light it emits. As noted above, this issue does not obtain in the same way when comparing certain readers, which utilize E-ink screens.
  • Cost/$$$$: Prior to tablets, this factor primarily centered on choices of hardbound versus paperback and new versus used. However, digital publishing and the Internet have ushered in a range of new choices. While cost is not really a factor when considering content cognition and retention, it is a factor faced by educational institutions when deciding how to use their scarce financial recources.
    • New, used, and rent: The issue of new versus used only obtains for paper texts, not for tablets. The costs, although, for digital content initially was far below that of paper texts. The shipment of paper texts, naturally, included additional costs into this equation, whereas digital texts can simply be downloaded. Colleges made it exceptionally easy to sell back college texts (generally at a substantially lower rate); students can rent content for tablets, through time restrictions for use for non-downloadable, Internet-based reading.
    • Editions, subscriptions, and updates: Educational choices of textual editions always plagued educators and students. Every several years, a textbook might be updated, which prompted many to obtain the new edition at a slightly elevated price point. This, however, created a countervailing force against the used book and “rental” market for paper texts. Digital publishing made creating new editions and updates easier, which made the “newer” content easier to access via the Internet. In this new consumer market, some educational institutions consider maintaining subscriptions to digital content, which enabled users to have access to updated material without making discrete expenditures for individual digital works.

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this blog. With this information as a point of reference, let’s look next at the research and studies that assess the value of traditional books versus tablets.

Craig Lee Keller, Ph.D., Learning Strategist


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