(UPDATE: Please read the correction above reagrding this post to understand the cross outs.)

I’ve been a Mark Federman fan ever since his great essay “Why Johnny And Janey Can’t Read, and Why Mr. And Ms. Smith Can’t Teach: The challenge of multiple media literacies in a tumultuous time“ from a few years ago, which, if you haven’t read it, would land on my required reading list for anyone interested in this conversation. Federman is with the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, and he’s one of those people that just pops up from time to time to get me thinking.

His latest pop (Correction: This is actually by Mark Bauerline. Oh, the irony.) is in The Chronicle Review and it’s titled “Online Literacy is a Lesser Kind: Slow reading counterbalances Web skimming.” It’s an interesting recap of some of the online reading studies that have been done by Jakob Nielsen over the years, but it  quickly turns to a discussion of why technology has met with mixed (at best) success in the K-12 classroom over the years. In a word, it has to do with reading:

Digitized classrooms don’t come through for an off-campus reason, a factor largely overlooked by educators. When they add laptops to classes and equip kids with on-campus digital tools, they add something else, too: the reading habits kids have developed after thousands of hours with those same tools in leisure time.

In many of my presentations I ask those assembled what percentage of their reading is done online and whether or not they know of anyone who addresses online reading literacies in the classroom. You can probably guess the results: not much, and zero. (Well, almost zero.) Once again, this is one of those areas where the kids are doing it already and the educators in the room don’t have much to go on in terms of what the differences are or any substantial practical experience. Federman Bauerline makes the point that when new technologies enter the classroom, teachers see change. Students, on the other hand, see the status quo:

Educators envision a whole new pedagogy with the tools, but students see only the chance to extend long-established postures toward the screen. If digitized classrooms did pose strong, novel intellectual challenges to students, we should see some pushback on their part, but few of them complain about having to learn in new ways.

For some reason, probably because I was a former English teacher, I reflect on this whole reading is changing discussion a lot. Probably 75% of what I read I read online. The other 25% is almost all books. I read all of my news from papers, magazines, etc. online, all of my correspondence, all of the blogs that I follow. And, as I’ve written before, my reading habits have changed a great deal. It has become an effort for me to work with longer texts, to do sustained reading and thinking, to stick with complex narratives.

Federman Bauerline argues that screen reading cannot provide those skills, and he argues it persuasively.

We must recognize that screen scanning is but one kind of reading, a lesser one, and that it conspires against certain intellectual habits requisite to liberal-arts learning. The inclination to read a huge Victorian novel, the capacity to untangle a metaphor in a line of verse, the desire to study and emulate a distant historical figure, the urge to ponder a concept such as Heidegger’s ontic-ontological difference over and over and around and around until it breaks through as a transformative insight — those dispositions melt away with every 100 hours of browsing, blogging, IMing, Twittering, and Facebooking. The shape and tempo of online texts differ so much from academic texts that e-learning initiatives in college classrooms can’t bridge them. Screen reading is a mind-set, and we should accept its variance from academic thinking.

This resonates. In fact, I’ve made myself take time over the last few months to read longer texts, and after plowing through three really, really engaging and challenging novels in the past month or so, I’m feeling like my brain is back in gear somehow. It’s getting closer to balance.

What continues to concern me, though, is the paucity of conversation about any of this in our schools. This is hugely complex, and it requires a strategy and good pedagogy. I feel almost blessed that my kids enjoy reading books, longer novels, Meg Cabot and Mike Lupica type stuff that are even above their age levels a bit. And I love talking to them about what they read. But as I watch Tucker search for and read helps and hints about Spore, I can see the difference. It’s not bad, but it is different. And it’s a difference we need to name.

(Photo Revision by -nathan.)