On web literacy and information retention

On my way out of class a couple weeks back, I mentioned to one of my professors and a fellow student that I have a very hard time retaining anything I read on my desktop. This, of course, means that the time I spend pouring over my online readings is usually wasted, and I hate to think of the implications this has for my life as an info professional. According to my (unnamed) professor, kids will be coming up with this skill set, especially considering that they will have spent their formative years online. (For the record, my family first signed on to AOL when I was 13.)

But here’s my question – will future generations really be more adept at reading information online? Does the way we read and process information have to do with pure practice (in which case I can ultimately get down to business to fix my “deficiency”) or have we humans evolved in such a way as to make reading on a computer screen legitmately difficult on our eyes and our brains?

Cheeringly, a friend of mine forwarded me an article with scientific information on the differences between reading online and reading from the printed page. Fortunately for me, this goes to show that I do not stuggle with this alone. And, to move away from my narcissistic point of view, these facts can inform the way we write and design for the web.

For example, we can design our websites so that our line lengths remain short enough so as not to cause our readers to over adjust when jumping down to the next line. And perhaps the librarians among us can advocate for dedicated e-readers, like the Kindle (which isn’t back lit) and the iPad (which is more highly pixelated than the average computer screen), both in the libraries and among our patrons. As for allowing for marginalia in digital text, perhaps that’s something the intrepid among us can sort out.

It’s important to realize that retaining information that is read on a standard computer screen is a legitimate issue for lots of people. It is up to us info scientists to recognize the needs of our patrons and to influence usability standards in ways that will help the average patron get as much as they can out of their online reading experience. 

(Davis Erin Anderson, VP, ASIS&T @ Pratt)

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