Monthly Archives: November 2007

New NEA study suggests further declines in reading

A couple of years ago the NEA produced a study entitled Reading at Risk which suggested literary reading among the US adult population was diminishing at a worrying rate. Last week they released a follow-up, entitled To Read or Not to Read; A Matter of National Consequence which suggests that not only is reading continuing to decline but that reading levels and abilities are following suit. I’m struggling to digest the 90-page report filled with tables and summary data but the claims being made for national consequences hinge on academic achievement, employability,and civic engagement.

I do wonder how accurately anyone answers questions about reading, it’s a form of automatic behavior many of us engage in without consideration of time costs so we might treat some of these data points with caution. However, the social desirability of reading might also inflate responses to some questions. Further, measures of reading ability are less prone to this type of error (though they have their own specific types) so it’s not easy to dismiss the final results, even if the tone of the report is somewhat sensational. But here’s some data points reported that are noteworthy:

-Percentage of adults read a work of literature (a novel, short story, playor poem) within the past year= 47%
-Literary reading declined in both genders, across all education levels, and all age groups, with declines steepest in young adults, and first year college students report extremely low levels of reading for pleasure (no mention of reading lists here!)
-More than half 17th-12th graders multitask while reading. The report calls them Generation M.

There’s a few hoary old chestnuts in the report, such as the suggestion that there are no studies yet which show if following hyperlinked information on screen has cognitive impact (hello! there’s 20 years of study on this!) but in general this is an exhaustive (and exhausting) effort. I’m not entirely comfortable with the links made between being a good reader and being a model citizen, attending jazz concerts, visiting museums and having a great job, but there is no doubt that reading is a profoundly important part of the human condition and we would do well to take note of the trends reported here. But, one must wonder, is literary reading (as defined by NEA) the real yardstick?

The use of technology in schools to be studied (at last?)

Indiana University’s School of Education has received a federal grant of $3m to study how technology is used in the classroom and to what effect. Am pleased there will be more data on this since some of us have conducted significant reviews over the last decade that raised serious doubts about the claims made for improved learning through hypermedia tools. What’s surprising with this latest award are the comments to the effect that this is the first national study of the topic. According to an investigator leading the project “No national study has ever been undertaken to figure out how teachers use technology in lessons and how students learn from that technology” Can it be so? After decades of proclaiming the benefits, of pushing a technological agenda for classrooms, of soliciting millions of grant dollars to support new learning environments, of gaining tenure on the basis of papers and books espousing the power of hypermedia to enhance the construction of meaning, educational researchers are now saying there’s never been a national study of this? And are we to presume that a national study is somehow better or more authoritative than well-designed studies on a class, state or multi-state level? Or is it the case, as some of us pointed out a decade ago, that any well-controlled studies of the effects of technology on learning are pretty scarce in the trendy world of educational research.

Academic Library futures (redux)

I am working on a paper for CLIR that speculates (briefly) on the future of academic libraries. It will form one part of a six-paper presentation for them that aims to stimulate discussion. This has me examining many of the assumptions we make about these libraries and it is obvious many people are thinking similarly. I was pointed towards the Taiga Forum who issued in 2006 a set of ‘provocative statements’ about the future of academic libraries (no longer accessible from their site), and provocative they are e.g., that within five years (i.e., by 2011) we shall witness the following:

– a 50% reduction in the physical size of collections in libraries
– the merger of academic computing and libraries
– no more librarians as we know them (and the new average age to be 28!)
– no more library web sites as we know them (can you resist saying “thank goodness”? Clearly I can’t)

Given that most academic libraries are in universities, I would not get too concerned at the pace of change but the ideas are certainly intriguing. I tend to view libraries more through the lens of socio-technical theory, which makes me view the ongoing shifts as an essential tension between technological advances and social forces that pull, mould, shape and modify these advances in multiple directions at the same time. Given the law of unintended consequences that applies to all new technologies, prediction is a bit of a mug’s game but we can be sure that the basic human drives and interests won’t shift radically in the short term. The purpose of that information space we term ‘academic library’ is not questioned as much as revealed by this tension; the view of libraries as central storehouses of approved documents is already overshadowed by the library as research space and technology hub, though one might not recognize this so easily in the curriculum. But repositorial concerns are born anew in the digital era of resource aggregation and distributed research work. No, it’s not old wine in new bottles, as the cynics would have us believe; there are genuinely new problems for which we have some limited guides from historical practices, but the challenges ahead are great. It seems the people who bemoan these changes and who seek to maintain the academic library as it was, are the people who usually don’t use one for research.

One last provocative statement from Tiaga: “all information discovery (by 2011) will begin at Google, including discovery of library resources”. Must have sounded radical last year, it’s probably true enough by now.