Posted by: Clive | June 12, 2008

Reading or scanning?


Netgeners, digital natives, the google generation, generation y, and millenials are all terms used to characterise students in higher education. Now I’m quite sure that new digital tools are influencing the ways in which we gather and process information. We all Google. It’s less clear exactly what those influences are and what effects they have on education/knowledge. A lot of the polemic lacks empirical evidence to back up the claims and seems to rely on small-scale studies or anecdote.

If it is true that we are reading more and more online (my own reading is probably split 70/30 but then I read and write from/on the screen) what kind of reading takes place when we are sitting in front of the computer? Recent research by by Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder, and Matthias Mayer (2008) Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use, throws some important light on the issue. Here are three of their findings:

On an average visit, users read half the information only on those pages with 111 words or less.
People spend some of their time understanding the page layout and navigation features, as well as looking at the images. People don’t read during every single second of a page visit.
On average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page

Obviously we have to scrutinise the nature of the ‘visit’ to a web page and be more specific about the ‘user’ but these findings are food for thought for anyone writing internet-mediated educational materials. I’ll be chewing over them during the summer. But also here’s an example of the ways in which an issue which has appeared constantly in the media (and will do so again as the exam season concludes) can be harnessed for empirical research. The netgen polemic is exactly that at the moment: polemic. Empirical studies are needed to scrutinise the claims. Do students at the Faculty here behave in ways it is claimed they behave by supporters of the net-gen hypothesis?

Interesting question: anyone interested?

If you do want to follow up any of these issues try:

Tapscott (1998) Growing up digital; Prensky (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants; Seely-Brown (2001) Growing up digital; Frand (2001) The Information Mindset; Brabazon (2007) The University of Google.

And if you’re interested in sampling what one author claims is ‘an evolutionary chapter in publishing history’ have a look at I’m not wild about it … but then again I’m hardly a netgener now am I!



  1. […] couple of weeks ago I wrote a post (Reading or scanning) that reported research on the nature of screen reading and particularly the limited attention span […]

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