Reading Sacred Texts on Screens, Not Paper: Does It Matter?

print-vs-digital-Bible

If computer devices are aspects of our material world that people pray over and for and through, what does that say about the boundaries between the sacred and the profane?

A soft glow has long filled reading rooms during devotional time. Instead of a lamp or candle illuminating manuscripts of yore, however, today often finds the manuscripts illuminating themselves.

The numbers of people reading on screens — on computers, tablets, e-readers, phones — is rising. A 2015 survey conducted for the American Bible Society shows that the number of print readers is still high at 93 percent, but “half of all Bible readers say they used the Internet on a computer to read Bible content …, 40 percent searched their smartphone or cell phone to find Bible content or Bible verses, and 35 percent downloaded or used a Bible app on their smartphone.“

Back in 2013, on the 5th anniversary of the App Store coming into existence, the Bible App by YouVersion reached more than 100 million downloads, according to a release.

While new tools may bring new conveniences and resources to a text, the overall beneficial impact of reading on screens is uncertain. Scholars have noted that regardless of the change, fears that paper will disappear from religious reflection are unfounded, and that in many cases paper is still the most effective or preferred source for discernment while reading.

Even so, for many laity and clergy, having the word of God conveniently present, searchable and bolstered with resources is a boon.

Paper or pixels?

The verdict is still out on whether screens will eventually supplant physical pages. Both sides have their adherents, and not just in the past decade.

A 1992 examination of empirical findings on screen versus paper reading, which found the studies to be inconclusive for any broad judgment, noted how each camp had its proponents.

“A book is a book is a book — a reassuring, feel-the-weight, take-your-own-time kind of thing,” one author is cited as saying.

Another scholar, Ted Nelson, states: “The question is not can we do everything on screens, but when will we, how will we and how can we make it great? This is an article of faith — its simple obviousness defies argument.”

Yet even among a new generation, the most digital yet, paper has its pros.

An article titled, “E-Textbooks Usage by Students at Andrews University: a Study of Attitudes, Perceptions, and Behaviors” states “Only 4 percent of the population studied opted to use an e-textbook. The print version is still greatly preferred by college students.”

Another abstract found: “Previous research has demonstrated that the experience of reading e-books is not equivalent to reading textbooks. This study examines factors influencing preference for e-books as well as reported use of e-book content. Although the present student cohort is the most technologically savvy to ever enter universities, students do not prefer e-books over textbooks regardless of their gender, computer use or comfort with computers.”

A 2005 article published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior states that participants in a study did better on paper than “video display terminals.”

“The results show that performance in the VDT presentation condition [were] inferior to that of the paper presentation condition for both consumption and production of information.”

Such studies led to the headline in Wired’s “Why the Smart Reading Device of the Future May Be … Paper.”

Digital reading still has its conveniences, what with hyperlinks, low physical footprint and quickly finding words and phrases. However, even Wired cites scholarly articles that find no real difference in how a text is read on paper, computer or e-readers, and that they may in fact help people with dyslexia.

Some say “it’s horrible … but then other people say, [the difference] is not very meaningful at all,” said Kim Garza, assistant professor of graphic design at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

She also noted that students at her university preferred paper on some occasions and that the printers were in constant use with students retrieving online resources.

She suggested that might be because the digital formats of certain PDFs aren’t conducive to taking notes or resizing text. They are “not presented in a way that is truly interactive.”

There are distractions to be found in on-screen notifications, like email alerts, and even the ballyhooed resources linked within texts can distract students as they are lured down trails of research and move away from the original literature.

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SOURCE: Baptist News Global
Matthew Waller

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