Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Rise of New Media, The Fall of Printed Books

New release: Just out this month, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt offers up The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition I have been using the Fourth Edition for about a decade, with no complaints. Because this resource provides etymological information as well as denotations and illustrations, I referred to it when writing my supplemental curriculum: Vocabulary through Morphemes, now in its Second Edition.

How has Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH) advertised the Fifth Edition of the dictionary? Marketing materials caught my interest with one question:
"Will this be the last print dictionary ever made?" 
Relative to this provocative question, the publishers made the book available in print,  online, and via a smartphone app. The question posed by HMH is probably precipitous, for not everyone has access to an e-reader. According to a March 2011 report by the National Association of College Stores, only about 15% of college students own any type of e-reading device (see post by Charles Schmidt). This percentage reflects an increase over prior years. It is logical to assume the numbers will continue to rise in future but it is also logical to assume that comparatively fewer K-12 school children have access to e-readers in the home. Perhaps they have access to the Internet at home. Perhaps not.

Recent trends indicate the end is coming--the age of print is already past its zenith. Certainly we have seen the rise of digital news over newsprint. Further, a number of magazines have transformed from print publishing to Web-based. For example, in 2009, Ecologist made the decision to stop printing their magazine, in favor of a digital version. See Why the Ecologist Has Gone Online, by Zac Goldsmith of The Guardian.

Students need to effectively use digital media as well as legacy media. The recently adopted Common Core State Standards reflect the expectation that students will become adept at learning from a variety of sources. Below, I show relevant English Language Arts Standards for grades five and six:
English Language Arts Standards: Reading: Informational Text: Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

Grade 5. RI.5.7.  Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources, demonstrating the ability to locate an answer to a question quickly or to solve a problem efficiently.
Grade 6. RI.6.7. Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.
The standards indicate that adolescents are expected to draw wisely from new media and from old, to further along the quest for information and deeper understanding. This assumes a great deal, not least the availability of both types of media, but the goal is spot on.

The standards notwithstanding, even as digital technology moves forward at speed, reading research lags behind. The Web offers a number of advantages for fact finding and for social interaction, but when it comes to the psychology of reading, despite the hype for high-tech, there is little evidence supporting a learning advantage for children who use e-readers, apps, or engage otherwise in online reading. We do not know enough about whether e-books enable fluent reading in younger students, nor do we know enough about the conditions under which web-reading and e-books might best facilitate vocabulary growth or comprehension in older students. The adjustment to digital reading is complicated, from a cognitive perspective, in large part because the Web is designed to distract. The adjustment to Web-reading involves more than the relatively superficial transformation seen when society moved from reading scrolls to reading books or from listening to cassettes versus CDs. At this point, a great deal is unknown. Work is underway; researchers are investigating these urgent issues and more. See prior post on processing digital text.

Getting back to the marketing campaign for the Fifth Edition, linguist Ben Zimmer addresses the portentous question posed by HMH in his post, Is this the last print dictionary?  Another expert, Dennis Baron, discusses the marketing gimmick with a post titled The last print dictionary.  Each writer explores the future of printed books.

What say you? Will digital dictionaries replace printed volumes, or is HMH asking the wrong question, making it dichotomous? This query might apply to novels, children's books, textbooks, etc. Gabrielle E. Miller, guest writer for the electronic Washington Post, offers a perspective: Must we have the digital versus print battle?

Classroom application: Along these lines, I offer a bit of verse for preteens and young adolescents, to elicit discussion and debate regarding the relative merits of printed texts and digital media. Is the age of books coming to an end? If so, what of it?
The Age of Books

Crated, carted, cast aside,
printed works have liquefied
in shocking bouts of bookicide.
The printing press is done, perhaps,
and publishers have (boom!) collapsed
to clicky gadgets, gizmos, apps.

Digital books are all the rage,
touchless paper, turnless page.
Stores are only cyber spaces,
cold, electric, faceless places.

Bookshops closed, bookshelves cleared,
paperbacks have disappeared.

The age of print has culminated,
finished, finis, terminated.

Make free use of the poem. I wrote it from a growing awareness of how new technology is influencing teaching, learning, and society in general at many levels. To prompt the spirit of debate I have taken a side, and it does reflect my love for books, but I see value in high tech and old, and I enjoy using my e-reader.

Want more? See the video for the book, titled It's a Book, by Lane Smith. Also, see the You Tube video The Help Desk, featuring medieval monks making the transformation from scroll to book. 



  1. Anonymous11/13/2011

    I certainly hope printed books are staying. I fear for those struggling readers who have access to technology only at school where it may be extremely limited due to budgets!

  2. Anonymous11/14/2011

    I much prefer a hard copy of anything I read. In a recent graduate class, a fellow student pointed at my binder of printed research and asked, "What's that?" I fear that I am in the minority.

  3. Hi Melody,

    Yes, I agree, but even with books there are access inequalities. Poor children have fewer books in the home, and poor schools have fewer books, too, especially informational books. Nell Duke's research showed some of the stark realities.


  4. Hi Anonymous, Next thing, they'll see your pencil and ask, "What's that?"

  5. What a wonderful poem Susan. I plan to share on my blog to help spread awareness of the influence of technology. You are a step ahead of me; I still don't have an e-reader. I don't know if I will ever be ready to give up the tactility of a traditional book.

  6. Thank you, Laura. Your site is an inspiration. I find so many curious things when I take a walk in the woRds.

  7. On this website you can find a variety of tools that can help you prepare English language exercises within minutes. And its all FREE! COPY/PASTE or write the text you want to use in to our generators.
    Tools For English Language

  8. Thanks! Good stuff at Tools for ELL site.


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