Archive for July 30, 2008

I’ve written before about some of these ideas when I was thinking about multitasking. Multitasking and Internet skimming seem to be two facets of the same problem. In some ways they both combine to reduce our ability to sustain focused concentration over time. I don’t mean to say that they’re all bad. Multitasking and skimming both have their place, and – like it or not – they’re both part of 21st century worklife. I worry though, that that we are rapidly becoming a society of skimmers, and the youngest readers are the ones who are most at risk

So what is the solution to this problem? Libraries have always sponsored reading programs, and that includes some built-in know-how. Combine that with some of the new information literacy programs, and I think a lot of people are on the right track. Teaching people to evaluate information is increasingly important. I think that libraries have a great opportunity to develop solid information literacy skills with the upcoming generation. Adding an Internet component to this is a logical extension. I’m trying to envision a good elementary or jr. high school reading program that combines Internet reading (not skimming) with thoughtful consideration of the content as well as careful questioning of the content’s authority and accuracy. What would that look like? Maybe someone has already built the ideal program and I just haven’t seen it yet.

The New York Times article I referenced in the previous post mentioned one thing that I found to be very encouraging. Many of the teens who are heavy Internet users are also writing a lot. They’re posting on message boards. They’re contributing to fan fiction sites. And if they’re writing on any level, hopefully they’re thinking about their content and how to present it. There is good writing and there is bad writing, but all writing can benefit from practice.

I would even venture to suggest that many of today’s teens are doing more writing than I did at that age. I wrote the papers that were required in classes, but that’s just about all I wrote. The nature of the Internet and particularly Web 2.0 applications drives participation. It demands putting something in – not just taking something out. I do have my concerns about teens’ Internet reading/skimming habits, but more writing is definitely a good thing!

The New York Times ran a very interesting article a few days ago. The article considers a number of issues surrounding teens’ reading habits. It discusses “Internet reading skills” and the fact that this type of reading is not evaluated by standardized tests. It considers arguments that Internet reading is both helpful and harmful. Many of the readers’ comments are as interesting as the article itself. One of the ideas in particular took me by surprise. Some of the people quoted in the article and a number of the respondents took an attitude of “at least they’re reading something” and “Internet reading is better than no reading at all.”

Interesting ideas, but for me they ignore two of the fundamental questions: WHAT are they reading and HOW are they reading?

First the “what.” I think the content is far more important that the medium. If a person is reading War and Peace, the Wall Street Journal, or Plato’s dialogues, does the medium really matter? Of course not. Book, printout, computer screen, or smartphone – good content is good content. Let the readers choose the format that they find most comfortable. However, if a person’s Internet reading is limited to message board postings, instant messages, and MySpace comments, then the content is far less meaningful.

Next the “how.” There is a lot of variety in how people read Internet content. Some are reading articles in online journals. Some are reading public domain books. And some are clicking rapidly from page to page as quickly as the next tantalizing tidbit catches their eye. I don’t consider this last category reading. It’s skimming, and it’s creating a generation of people who can’t sustain prolonged, in-depth focus on content.

I’ve seen these people, and I’ve worked with them. It can be frustrating for both sides. They ask a question. You answer it. But they think you haven’t answered it because they only skimmed the reply. They didn’t READ the full details. There wasn’t a helpful picture or video embedded in the reply. There were no links to send them off to a host of Internet sites. There was merely clear content, but somehow they just couldn’t comprehend it.