Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Print vs Digital: Is the discussion getting nasty?

by Ed Latham

I have been talking with a few school administrators and librarians lately and have been hearing more and more discussion about digital media vs print. There are two sides to this issue but the push for more digital media in schools seems to be adding some more teeth to the argument.

Library media specialists and others have always contended that nothing will ever replace the feel of a book or the experience of reading newsprint. The tactile and visual experiences can not be duplicated and to remove those experiences from society would be killing a sacred cow. The art of print has mutated and matured much in the last 200 years and the fear is that this art form could quickly die out in less than 10 years.

On the other end of the spectrum there are arguments that more, reliable, news sources can be reached on the Internet, digital media is more accessible to those with Internet access, digital media remains accessible for longer periods of time with less resources needed, and lately the cost has entered into the equation. Almost all newspapers allow for free subscriptions to digital copies of their papers. If there is a charge, school systems usually have a very paltry amount needed compared to the cost of all of their students being able to simultaneously access an article. Text book costs to school systems continue to rise on par with increased insurance costs to employees. Unlike the inflation in insurance, the textbook financial drain is being entirely removed in some schools by the usage of online text books or university training resources that are freely available in almost any subject and language on the Internet.

The discussions concerning the pros and cons have almost become threatening in the sense that budget people are now starting to say, "We have to cut x, that can be from this source or that source or this other source. Oh yea, we could also cut textbooks and print out and none of those sources would be impacted" Wow! What a choice that now has to be made. Communities will have some tough discussions about whether having new text books and 3-5 newspaper subscriptions is of the same value as, say a teacher's position or an entire "extra" extension course or program.

I feel very much on both sides of this argument. I have learned to read and enjoy books on my little pda and can easily enjoy reading on the Internet for hours. Even with my enjoyment of digital media I can acknowledge that reading a book is a different experience. I am not sure I can say one is better than the other, but I can say they are different. With the financial arguments or "threats" starting to become more prevelant, I find that I agree with the logic behind the switch over to digital media access, especially here in Maine where so many students have equal access to computers. Tie in the need to be able to process data from so many sources and I could make the argument that print may actually hold some people back from exploring other resources because the "instant access" of the Web is not there when skimming a book or periodical.

How about you? What are your thoughts one way or the other? If your school came up to you and said, "Which is worse, loosing that feel of the tactile book or loosing staff members?" what would you say? Is it even possible for the leviathan that is educational change can even adapt to such a concept of digital reading at the same rate that budgetary concerns would like to push things?

So many questions, I am hoping there are people out there talking in their commuities or here on line. I have remained ignorant of online discussions, but at a local level there seems to be tension building. How does it look in your neighborhood?


West Paris Universalist Church said...


Interesting questions. The digital world doesn't really give a sense of time and place. I suspect it is more difficult for children to gain an understanding of the passing of time if they haven't experienced the analog clock. The phrases such as quarter to three or half past four increasing receive blank stares from young folks. Likewise, the beauty of a book is that you can quickly see visually how far you have come and how far you have to go. And gosh, isn't the feel of the pages a great thing to experience. Seems to me it sure would be a shame to evolve to the point that we have few opportunies to "touch" the objective world.

How important are these qualities in maintaining a rootedness to the natural world? Do 1s and 0s have a soul?

Having said that, devices like Amazon's kindle (which I'm not ready to buy as of yet) at about $400 is beginning to approach an easily read device that can inexpensively download text to be read. With the prices of many textbooks approaching $100 a piece, how long will it be before it is simply the most cost effective way to go. Not sure if any digital textbooks are available yet via Kindle. I would suspect not because of the vested interest of publishers . . . but to me it seems to simply a matter of time. Of course, look at all the mini-tablets and devices that are proliferating in the marketplace.

Of course, that presents another question. Do we really even need textbooks, digital or not, any longer?

Just a few thoughts . . .

Jim Burke

Jim Burke said...

Oooooops .. . just let religion seep into the blog! ;)


Ed Latham said...


Lol on the religion thing, but I agree about the almost spiritual experience of turning pages in a book. I am currently finishing up the Inkheart series and the author goes to great lengths to share the richness of books. Sad to see that pass away.

But look to other areas of our life. When was the last time anyone here churned butter, ground your own flower, cut your own timber for your woodshed? All of these activities have been replaced with quick and cheap alternatives and we have lost touch with the satisfaction of a job well done. Some would argue that we survived these changes and are still going strong. Part of me shudders and thinks that we are more and more becoming less independent and loosing the ability to even become independent should the need arise.

Sigh, I need to go pick my garlic and get that drying. Seems I need to spend so many more hours with my hands in the dirt the more I think about some of these issues.

Dave said...

Ah - you guys are showing your age!

Today's students seem to be less romantic about turning a page. Regardless, pdf files can always be printed out and stapled if you need the "spiritual experience of turning a page".

I'm just a lowly adjunct instructor at a local college. In a recent course, the assigned textbook (selected by the department chair, I think) was hideous and, in my humble opinion, useless. (and about $150!)

With a quick Google search, I found on-line resources that the students loved, used, and learned from.

With the dramatic growth of "open-source" software, and intellectual content, there is little need to continue to fund corporate publishers of textbooks.

Jim Burke said...

Ed sure is an old guy.