The critical voice among technology optimists

Reading researcher Anne Mangen studies how various media and technologies impact our writing and reading skills. She is a prominent dissident among those who hail the entry of personal computers in kindergartens and schools.

Mangen's paper, which indicates that on-screen reading in many cases are more stressful for the brain than reading on paper, has attracted worldwide attention. It is cited by Nicholas Carr in his well-known book “The Shallows – What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”.

“Activities such as clicking and scrolling on a screen occupy our attention and cognitive capacity. This may interfere with our mental attention, and leave us more vulnerable to distractions when reading a text,” Mangen says. 

Mangen is an associate professor at the University of Stavanger’s Reading Centre.

In illustrating the difference between reading novels and stories on screen and on paper, she applied theory from the fields of psychology and phenomenology – particularly in relation to the interplay between haptics (the ways in which we use our fingers and hands) and attention.

Mangen was awarded a highly commended in the UKLA/Wiley-Blackwell research and Education Award 2009 for this particular paper. Following the success, Mangen has introduced methodology derived from the natural sciences into her work.

Pencils better than PCs?
Through COST’s European Research Network on Learning to Write Effectively (ERN-LWE), Mangen became aware of the French neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay’s research on writing. Velay is a scientist at the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Marseille, and Mangen believes his studies on the links between the sensorimotor and perceptual aspects when learning to write, are relevant to the study of reading.

The two researchers have co-written a paper on the interplay between motorics, perception and cognition when writing by hand, compared to writing on a keyboard.

Through a series of experiments, Velay and his colleagues have demonstrated that the movements involved when writing by hand, support the visual recognition of letters. In other words: The motor components of handwriting play an important role in learning the letters of the alphabet.

“This disappears with the keyboard, where there is nothing in the movement of typing a “B” that informs the writer about the visual shape of the letter. When replacing handwriting with a keyboard, and thereby altering the role of the motor component, we could – and should – ask ourselves how this will affect our teaching and acquisition of writing skills,” Mangen explains.

Based on her own research on the haptic and tactile aspects of reading, she finds neuroscientific and physiological studies of writing particularly interesting.

“The process of reading, and learning to read, may as well involve our body and sensory modalities beyond vision, such as haptics”, Mangen says.

Scrutinising e-books
Velay and Mangen are about to compare e-books and printed books, in assessing how well we memorise and understand what we read. Mangen’s theoretical approaches and pedagogical methods are supported by Velay’s empirical findings.

“Currently, in the pedagogical field, there is a lack of awareness, or at least a lack of focus, on the workings of the human body and brain. This is in my viewboth incomprehensible and unfortunate. Scant attention is paid to biology and neuroscience in the pedagogic disciplines,” she says.

But fortunately, this seems to be changing, and Mangen believes an interdisciplinary approach is the way forward, particularly in research on technology and learning.

A critical voice
Personal computers are omnipresent in Norwegian schools, and are increasingly being introduced in kindergartens as well. Anne Mangen often find herself to be of a minority of critical voices among technology optimists.

“If you look at controlled empirical studies of the use of PC’s for obtaining various learning objectives, such as for instance promoting and supporting reading comprehension, you will see that digital technologies fare poorly, compared with ‘old fashioned’ techniques like pen and paper,” the reading researcher says.

“As of today, there is little empirical evidence to support such an uncritical and wholehearted implementation of PC’s, the way it seems to be done in Norway. It is too easy too sit back and refer to school curricula, impelling the pupils to acquire digital skills. We don’t know enough about the effects of using ICT in schools, and what the costs may be,” says Mangen.

She would like to see more interdisciplinary, empirical research on this subject.

Text: Karen Anne Okstad
Translation: Astri Sivertsen