Camela Giraud, The Out-of-Door Academy
Active reading with electronic texts fails to impress in an English classroom.
At the start of the summer in 2011, each Out-of-Door Academy faculty member was given a Kindle. The charge was simple: find a good book to read over the summer and be prepared to discuss it with fellow faculty members at the end of the summer. During the summer, Joanne Barrett and I talked about ways we might bring our Kindle experience into the classroom. I’d enjoyed the ease of reading electronic texts during the luxury of the summer. Couldn’t we explore the possibility of using these etexts in the classroom? Would it be possible to replace a hard copy of a text with a version readable on a Kindle, a laptop, or even an iPad from the new shared cart of iPads slated to arrive in the fall? An English classroom seemed like a logical place to experiment since so many of the texts were already available for free online. We chose Mary Shelley’s 1818 classic novel, Frankenstein, a 10th grade Honors text.
We began the unit by having students create a collaborative ebook on the novel’s background. This project served as sort of a class Wikipedia entry to support our reading. Making and sharing ebooks on the iPads was a terrific collaborative publishing experience. We were all impressed by this first sleight of hand—the potential for our use of ebook technology was exciting and all the kids got the chance to share their work electronically. We were off to a strong start.
Once we began reading the text, however, the challenges of adapting our active engagement with the text itself soon became clear. While Joanne was resourceful in solving various stumbling blocks such as storing all of student’s notes and highlights in a single, searchable place, I couldn’t help feeling that guiding the class discussion required more attention to navigating the technology than to exploring the ideas of the novel.
While the iPad offered a more friendly interface for engaging with our text, we were limited by the fact that the iPads were shared and could not become the sole possession of students in the devoted to the Frankenstein unit—something that may have made reading the text more enjoyable. On the days Joanne wheeled the iPad cart into class, most students preferred to work on their personal digital devices where they could quickly access their notes. The vast majority of student reading occurred on laptops, though a small number of students experimented with their own Kindles, Nooks, and even cell phones while working on the unit. But because the iPads were shared devices, students had to sign into their individual accounts to access notes stored on a remote server rather than simply pulling up their work. The iPads were not the students’ preferred medium for reading for this reason.
Besides figuring out what electronic device was preferable, another major challenge in the unit arose early. Students were beginning to grumble about longer than usual time required to complete reading assignments. They attributed this to the extra steps necessary to actively read an electronic text. As a result, I noticed students were becoming less active in discussions. More students than usual simply waited for me to offer locations or specific notes rather than offered their own questions and insights about the readings. Our discussions leaned heavily on passages I copied into other formats and projected onto the board rather than coming at least in part from student work outside of class—something I expect from an honors class. In the course of the unit, I found that the class was becoming less and less a discussion about the literature and more one about how to locate and organize information in our text and in our own notes.
As I tried to embrace our discomfort as evidence of our simple need to adapt, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something frustratingly flat about the experience that left many of us feeling like Frankenstein’s unhappy creature. In my desire to understand the experience, I returned to the texts I’d studied as an English major about the ways we find meaning in texts. German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote about the need for reading to become seamless, for the object of study to become an object “ready to hand” rather than “present to hand.” One way of understanding this insight is to consider how one becomes unconscious of using a computer mouse when one’s computer is functioning well. Because one’s access to the information is unimpeded, we say the information is “ready to hand.” Instead of focusing on the object that makes the information available –“present to hand”– one is able to focus on the information itself. This experience relates to the experience of reading when the reader becomes absorbed by the story and gets caught up in the flow of the narrative rather than in the artifice of the words on the page. The story is “ready to hand.”
This insight about the experience of reading and engaging with text offered some clarity and helped me realize our difficulties were less a symptom of our inability to adapt to reading an electronic text and more a symptom of the ways in which using technology to actively engage with a text is still a work in progress. Seamless and organic active reading, I believe, requires one to do more than simply type a note that is neatly stored in a list of notes. In fact, active reading is rounder, symbol filled, doodled, arrowed, colored. It is personal and layered and sometimes messy. In efficient active reading, one needs to connect language and ideas in the simple act of putting pen to paper. The resulting notes, connections, and inquiries are searchable in a physical way. Consider how often you are able to find a piece of text by recalling its location at the top of the right hand side of the paper near the end of the second chapter, two pages from the last dog-ear you folded before going to bed.
I would be remiss not to mention that I did have at least one student express that one need only re-think how to take notes and that the electronic list form was neater and invited more thorough note-taking. To be fair to the process, it is possible that with more practice reading and annotating in this way, one would likely become increasingly proficient and comfortable with the process. Despite this, I strongly feel that a hard copy book is preferable for active reading and discussion because of the ease in locating information and creating varied annotations in the margins of the pages.
Certainly, electronic texts in some contexts may be perfectly suitable. As my experience with my Kindle has shown, reading an electronic text can be a delightful way to read recreationally. I love my Kindle for exactly that reason. I can zip through a book quite happily on my e-Reader. But if I need to find a powerful sentence, mark connections between ideas on the page, or find the information quickly to be able to offer concrete details to support my assertions in discussing a book, I need a hard copy. I need the ability to move away from the flat experience of a list of notes and highlights on the Kindle e-Reader to a more physical medium.
In my research about the work being done to make electronic reading a more organic experience, one that is suitable for the engaged reading required in the study of books, I have found that software designers are beginning to listen to voices like mine. While some are developing ways that active reading can become a social process, others are exploring ways technology can actually improve our ability to interact with and connect texts. Ultimately, technology is valuable in the ways it can move us beyond what we are already capable of doing. We should not embrace technology for technology’s sake. After this experience, I feel strongly that the use of electronic versions for the active study of texts still lags behind the advantages of a physical book. For now, I’ll keep my highlighters and pencils, and the dog-eared, grubby copy of Frankenstein that I continue to mark and bend every year I teach from it.