Every year, educational technology companies introduce new platforms, devices, and apps, all of which bring exciting new possibilities for teaching and learning. It is difficult—perhaps impossible—to find a school that has not adopted at least some form of digital learning into its curriculum, and many schools have made the shift to an entirely digital learning experience.

But in the race towards devices and digital curriculum, it can be instructive to slow down and ask, “Why?” What is this all for?

Is it because students prefer to be on devices, or that devices offer higher engagement? Is it because the creation, updating, and distribution of digital content is easier and more cost-effective than print resources? Is it because digital offers a path towards personalized learning, in which each student is met with a unique curriculum specific to his or her learning abilities and interests? Or is it because digital curriculum just seems more cutting-edge than its more traditional, physical counterpart?

The Advantages of Digital

It depends on who you ask, and many might argue that the answer is “all of the above.” After all, the educational possibilities of digital are plentiful. Digital devices and curriculum generally offer greater flexibility and interactivity than print materials, which means teachers can easily customize lessons using multiple resources and information from different disciplines.

At Kids Discover, we’ve found that the interconnectedness of digital also allows for more inquiry-based learning, enabling students to explore their interests and make new discoveries.

The Advantages of Print

On the other hand, print is a linear, fixed medium, which some may find limiting in and age of limitless information. However, does this really mean that print is any less valid (or effective) of a medium than digital?

Print is often more accessible than digital. Everyone knows how to turn the page of a book. You don’t have to learn where the buttons are and what they do. You don’t have to navigate a particular interface or remember your login credentials.

The tangibility of print offers learners a different type of experience than digital materials do. While both are tactile in nature, one uses a touchscreen or a keyboard, while the other uses texture and weight to engage the senses. Kinesthetic learners may benefit from both of these sensory experiences.

Studies have been conducted on student preference as far as paper and digital. While digital materials can include kid-friendly and engaging elements such as videos, links, and animations, many students still prefer physical books.

Granted, it is unclear why these students prefer print. Perhaps it is simply for a sense of nostalgia, or the tactile nature of physical print—or maybe there just haven’t been enough successive generations exposed to a primarily digital experience for this medium to be taken for granted as “the new normal.”

Whatever the reason, research like the Scholastic Reading Report should certainly cause administrators to think deeply about which materials will best fit their students’ preferences and needs.

Choosing What’s Best for Learning—and Testing

Studies like the above are valid not only when deciding which technologies are best for imparting knowledge to students, but also when deciding which ones are best for testing the retention of that knowledge. When studying the comparative advantages of longhand versus laptop note-taking, researchers have found that even when laptops are used solely for taking notes (not multi-tasking or getting distracted online), laptop note-takers took more notes, but still performed worse on conceptual questions than longhand note-takers.

Digital content is not “better” than print merely because it is digital—and vice versa. This isn’t about screens versus paper.

It comes down to the quality of the content, and whether or not it is the best fit for the school, students, and teachers. It’s about usability, functionality, and creating new methods of learning and discovery, whether that is through print or digital curriculum. If a digital tool is the best tool, then use it, but as teacher, author, and presenter Alice Keeler says, make sure you are using it in a way that enhances student learning.

The future isn’t solely digital, no matter how it may seem sometimes. As a publisher, we create both digital and print materials, and we don’t plan to change that anytime soon. We live in an inspiring time, when both of these mediums have an important role to play. How much space each of those parts occupies is up to each individual district, school, and classroom.

About the Author:

Ted Levine is the president and CEO of the award-winning social studies and science publisher Kids Discover. Follow him on Twitter: @Kids_Discover.


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