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Mind Over Matter: Paper Books Are Better for Reading– Because We Believe It to Be So

The e-books are coming. The e-books are coming to the legal academy.

Yes , the digitalization of legal case books is gaining momentum; in fact some predict that within a decade, on-screen legal texts will replace paper legal texts. And there are signs throughout the legal publishing industry of this major change. Last year, Apple entered the legal market while Thomson Reuters, let go of West Academic Publishing.

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So what’s the big deal? Once law students have mastered the technology of ebooks, shouldn’t there be a smooth transition from on-paper legal text to on-screen legal text? For the past 20 years or more, scientists have looked to see whether there have been differences in how readers process text in the two media. Research has indicated that digital texts are inferior to paper texts. Compared to readers of paper texts, readers of on-screen text read more slowly, less accurately and with greater amount of strain on working memory. But as Noyes and Garland (2008) note these inferiorities seemed to be more related to the backwardness of the digital technology available at the time of the studies were undertaken. As digital books have become more “book-like,” deficiencies in reading on screen text have diminished or disappeared altogether. With the latest technology, readers now “turn” a page rather than scroll. Readers can choose to read pages that are the equivalent length of printed pages of the same book. Moreover, digital texts now mimic printed books. Technologies like electrophoretic ink (e-ink) use ambient light just as a printed page does. As studies have yet to compare the new ebooks with print (Noyes and Garland, 2008), we cannot yet conclude that comprehension or reading speed is much poorer with the newest digital ebooks.

Our attachment to paper and books is wonderful, charming and quite understandable. I can’t stand reading stuff on my computer.

While we await further research on head to head comparisons between the newest generation of ebooks and paper text, two researchers Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011) believe that the biggest obstacle to reading digital texts is — ourselves. This reluctance to rely on digital texts for any serious reading is persistent and widespread. Emblematic of that reluctance are the remarks of Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft, in Nature: “Our attachment to paper and books is wonderful, charming and quite understandable. I can’t stand reading stuff on my computer.”

The Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011) study sought to determine whether this widespread belief undermined reading of on screen texts. The researchers found that readers of digital text did poorer on comprehension tests than readers of paper texts, but this superiority vanished after the researchers instituted a condition that controlled for self-regulation (the researchers controlled this by specifying how much time the study participants could study texts).

The researchers concluded that the metacognitive regulation —the monitoring of reading and control of cognitive resources – were themselves affected by the very belief that reading for digital texts is ill suited for any serious reading. This reluctance to trust digital texts takes a life of its own and undermined the reader’s allocation of cognitive resources to undertake the task of reading digital text The effect of this belief goes like this: “Because I don’t trust reading from digital texts, I have no confidence in my monitoring and control of cognitive resources, and because of these self-referential beliefs, I will not exert too much effort and control over my cognition as there is very little I can do to improve my comprehension.”

More research is needed to test the effect of the belief in the inferiority of ebooks, but there is a very large body of empirically based research to support the effect of self-referential beliefs on self-regulation of academic performance. Self-efficacy, which are “beliefs in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the curses of action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997; Zimmerman and Schunk, 2001), has been shown to strongly affect motivation, cognitive control, exertion of effort, and persistence. On the strength of these studies, what kinds of things should legal educators be concerned about the use of digital texts in the law school classroom?

One is that the study gives pause to replacing conventional paper texts with digital texts in law school. There is nothing inherently inferior about reading text on the computer screen, but differences in metacognitive regulation of reading on-screen versus reading text on paper do undermine reading comprehension. Because of the reluctance to rely on digital texts for anything beyond reading for blogs, email messages and news articles, we can expect students to resort to a simplest solution to the problem– printing the digital texts on paper.

Two, deficiencies in reading on screen text are not inherent and insurmountable. Ackerman and Goldsmith (2011) suggest that cognitive strategies that force readers to engage in more effortful processing would overcome any disadvantages that digital text have as reading material. (In fact, these very strategies would improve reading of on paper text.) More training would help to change beliefs about the unreliability of digital texts, and that, in turn, would result in better self-regulation of reading of digital texts.

We cannot simply assume that our reading skills, long accustomed to paper text, will be seamlessly applied to digital media.

Third, legal educators should be very concerned with administering any examination questions on computer screens—an innovation that is already on the horizon. The Law School Admissions Council has already looked into a computer-based version of the LSAT. And it is not too hard to imagine a future in which bar examination questions are administered on-screen, since many jurisdictions such as New York already allow examinees to use computer-based software to encode their responses to exams that are on paper. In fact Pennebaker, Goslinger and Farrell (2012) advocate daily online testing in large classes to boost academic performance. Much more research is needed before we move to fully computer-based testing systems.

Although the digitalization of reading material seems inevitable in the legal academy and beyond, Ackerman and Goldsmith’s (2011) study shows that we cannot simply assume that our reading skills, long accustomed to paper text, will be seamlessly applied to digital media.

The takeaway on this to legal educators? Test and read text on screen but proceed with extreme caution until we’ve given students the tools to effectively comprehend digital materials.

Authors note: Many thanks to CUNY Law Professors Julie Lim and Jonathan Saxon on providing me with reports on the state of digital texts in law schools.

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