Is our reading behaviour changing? Search me…

For a few years now there have been various journal papers and blog articles positing the theory that our reading behaviour, that of the so-called Google Generation, is changing to adapt to the medium of the internet, some say becoming more shallow. McLuhan followers will have been sitting smugly in front of their screens. The medium is the message, right? Well, more recently studies on student reading behaviour and ebooks at University College London and the University of Toronto have given me (more) food for thought.

The work being done by these two great institutions is certainly starting to challenge our assumptions on how we read online. Professor Dave Nicholas’ work at CIBER, UCL (see the JISC national ebooks observatory project and survey here) found that:

‘[…] the length of time of an average e-book session is surprising, but it chimes very well with previous CIBER deep log studies: 34.6 per cent of university teachers say they spend less than ten minutes online, for students the figure is 23.2 per cent. Findings from the UCL SuperBook study suggest that around half the time that users spend on e-book platforms is actually devoted to navigating the information space and finding content, so these figures are even more surprising, even if the hypothesis that users are printing for subsequent reading holds true. Even more remarkably, university teachers are even more likely to dip in and out of e-book content, rather than even reading a single whole chapter. So much for that pejorative phrase, the ‘Google Generation’!’ [my emphasis]

And a similar study by Peter Jones at the University of Toronto (not yet published) found that:

‘A user may typically do a quick scan of an eBook for their immediate needs, and quit.’

One of their respondents, considered to be a ‘lead user’ of online scholarly platforms admitted

‘When it comes to web resources, if it doesn’t give me what I want in 5-10 minutes, I’m gone.’

So exactly what is going on here? Is the volume of information made available to us forcing us to skim and scan, and as a result are we losing the ability to ‘deep read’? And therefore the ability to fully digest and comprehend what we’re reading?

Like the rest of my peers, the volume of information I now have to work through on a daily basis seems to have grown exponentially. There are newspapers, emails, trade journals, conference proceedings, academic studies, meeting minutes, agendas, internal reports, supplier proposals, newsletters, licenses, contracts, industry blogs, white papers, and maybe, just maybe, some time to open my Sony Reader and enjoy some fiction at the end of the day (although thanks to some enterprising plugins I’m now able to convert much of my office reading into the Sony BBeB format too).

But hold on, when I recently read Wuthering Heights on my Sony Reader (for the first time, I’m ashamed to admit!), I poured over every word. Slowly, deliberately. Aren’t we all still doing this too? When I find a blog I connect with, I’ll spend far more time deep reading than with one less pertinent to my life. Even in preparing to write this piece I have spent considerable effort reading and re-reading the papers I’ve quoted.

The fact is, when I need to, I can deep read just as well as 20 years ago before the web was ubiquitous. I certainly haven’t lost that skill. And my children (aged 6 and 3) will also learn how to deep read, as opposed to scan. When I read Harry Potter to them every night at bedtime I certainly don’t skim through the less exciting parts. When we read their school books together we languish over every word, absorbing its meaning and context within the overall story. They wouldn’t want to skim even if they knew how!

Perhaps the way in which we are reportedly forced to read online and offline now is actually more about the search for the relevant. Our more developed skills in skim reading and scanning are formed by ‘the intersection of thee moving targets’ according to the UofT study:

  • Awareness – what resources I know to be out there (which blogs, which newspapers, which wikis etc.).

  • Collection – the range and completeness of the content in those resources.

  • Findability – how easy it is to navigate within those resources.

So, getting back to the findings of these studies, i.e. that we typically spend less than 10 minutes in any given reading session… it strikes me that students are merely searching and navigating the content universe in short bursts, as we all do, trying to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. They gather together the relevant and pertinent content and, in many cases will print off the bits they need in order to take them back to their digs to digest and analyze at a much more thorough pace later.

The CIBER study describes this as ‘horizontal information seeking’:

A form of skimming activity, where people view just one or two pages from an academic site and then `bounce’ out, perhaps never to return. The figures are instructive: around 60 per cent of e-journal users view no more than three pages and a majority (up to 65 per cent) never return.

And from the same study, ‘squirreling behaviour’:

Academic users have strong consumer instincts and research shows that they will squirrel away content in the form of downloads, especially when there are free offers. [Don’t we all? Who can resist a freebie?]

I don’t believe there is such a thing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ reading behaviour. I don’t believe the Google Generation is synonymous with dumbed-down reading as we disaggregate and re-aggregate books into ever smaller ‘chunks’ or ‘sound bites’ presented online. We’re just trying to find ever more efficient ways of navigating the volume of information presented to us on a daily (even hourly!) basis.

Perhaps we’re not changing our reading behaviour at all. Perhaps we’re merely developing new strategies in searching for what we need in an ever expanding and propagating universe of content. Perhaps what we’re really seeing is more widespread use of ‘horizontal information seeking’ which is entirely appropriate in our situation.

So…are we really changing the way we read?

Search me.

Mark Majurey
Digital Development Director at Taylor and Francis Group, the international academic publisher of journals and books.



Filed under education, internet, Reading

2 responses to “Is our reading behaviour changing? Search me…

  1. Mark

    Fantastic post! I found as a university student that very rarely would I read an e-journal from back to front. I would usually grab section or skim over it to try and grab as much relevant info as possible. With the overwhelming amount of information that is available to us it is very hard to do much more. Hopefully with tools like spreed, university students and others alike will be able to delve deeper into the contextual abyss without compromising comprehension.

  2. Pingback: Newsletter 02/2010 – Wie lesen wir online? |

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