Prof Mrinal Chatterjee

Printed text has been around 600 years. Digital era in India is just about 30 years old. In this short time, it seems it has pushed print out of the media ecosphere. There is a gloom over printed text, with some writing the epitaph. Everybody and their uncle and aunty are gung ho about the digital media- how it enjoys a high convenience quotient, how it can provide multi-platform, help multi-tasking, help search anything you require and also to listen to a song simultaneously.

Printed text does have some plus points. There is a tactile and sensory experience that cannot be replicated by digital media. Holding a book, magazine, or newspaper allows people to engage with the content differently. There is also a sense of permanence and durability to printed materials that cannot be achieved with digital media.

However, the general view is: the days of printed text is over. Digital is the future- the only future. Print will soon be history. And rightfully so. Its days are over.

I do not agree with these assumptions. I strongly feel, the days of printed text are not over, yet. It will survive at least for the next 50 years, or roughly two generations.

Let me put forth my arguments:

Recent research shows that between digital and print reading, print is better for comprehension and cognitive development.

Reading fiction and poetry from printed text, provides denser emotional satisfaction, besides understanding.

Reading from printed text makes children sharper, smarter and more imaginative, which the future technology needs the most.

With the increase in digital texts for schools, there have been many studies to see how this affects reading comprehension, an important cognitive process in learning. Delgado et al. (2018) reviewed the research on reading on screen vs. reading digitally in a study called “Don’t throw away your printed books”. Results showed what the title suggested.

Results also showed that print was consistently better for reading comprehension when time was limited and the genre was non-fiction. They also found that as time went on (from 2000 to 2017) the advantages of print increased and devices that require scrolling are worse than those that do not.

The pattern is clear – print reading is better than digital reading for comprehension. Why? The answer is the extraneous cognitive load that digital reading puts on the reader.

Cognitive load is the amount of mental energy you are using to perform a task. Let’s say you can keep a maximum 5 things in your mind at a time (i.e. in your working memory), if you’re trying to think of 5 different things that’s a high cognitive load, whereas trying to remember just one thing is a low cognitive load. One reason why reading on your phone is an issue is because simply having your smartphone near you while studying reduces your working memory capacity.

This is because of cognitive load which is further separated into extraneous and intrinsic cognitive load. Your phone is a source of extraneous cognitive load – information that is irrelevant to the learning task that places demands on your working memory. This interferes with your ability to learn the material you’re studying. This is the opposite of intrinsic cognitive load, which are the cognitive demands of the specific learning task. For example, a book has just the information, whereas a digital medium (website, browser, phone, etc.) comes with an array of possible distractions all fighting for your attention.

What about other readers that are designed just for reading? These don’t have notifications or apps. The mere structure of the e-reader takes more cognitive effort to place a text in context when it’s more difficult on a screen reader to see what came before and after the bit you’re reading. The undeniable benefit of a physical book is the ease with which you can place the text in context.

Where information is placed in a text can help comprehension because we learn by making connections.. Putting text in context like this is much harder in digital readers because once it disappears from the screen it’s gone, out of sight and out of mind. This might be why studies comparing print, scrolling, and non-scrolling show those that have to scroll score worse on reading comprehension tests.

Another point relates to the quantum of enjoyment and understanding. Print provides more. The reason is simple: we tend to read print, see screen. Our engagement with the content is far too dense and intrinsic in print than digital. When engagement is denser, it has more chances of providing more enjoyment and understanding.

Lesson learnt: don’t shun digital; you probably cannot for it is ubiquitous and has a very high utility quotient. However, don’t desert print. Engage with printed text, book, newspaper, magazines, whatever as frequently as you can. Encourage your children, students to read books and magazines in physical form rather than in digital form.

(The author is Regional Director Indian Institute of Mass Communication, IIMC Dhenkanal. Views are personal)