Print Versus Digital: We Need Both

Cinnamon Scheufele

The Covid-19 pandemic and rapid shift to remote learning have brought forward discussions that have been occurring on the periphery or in the background, at least, for several years. Is there still a role for print materials in an online world? Are schools living in the past if we still rely on print?

Many districts have embraced online instructional tools and devices as go-to options for improved learning. These digital options allow for essential data collection, assessment, and organized collaborative curriculum, but it's worth noting that print materials can play an equally important role alongside the new platforms. It's a blending of different models that often works best. 

As a "digital immigrant" who is surrounded by digital natives, I am aware of these two worlds existing simultaneously. And, in my evaluation, there is a considerable need for the continued use of print materials. I don’t have a particular affinity for print ─ I happen to love the digital world, including the accessibility and the quicksave options it provides. I recognize the range of research supporting the use of both print and digital and the expanded ability to meet all learners' needs and preferences.


An advantage to different learning styles

People learn in different ways. There are various styles, and not everyone attends to the digital world with the endless options of files and folders. When a learner is using digital materials with increasing frequency, pathways change in the brain. There's a great deal of research on this. Neural pathways form in a particular fashion when we spend most of our time reading, studying, and taking in content digitally.

The avalanche of digital content changes us neurologically into a different type of learner, and it doesn't always work for everyone. The silver lining in the cloud is that we don’t have to choose between digital and print. There is space for both.  There is a need for both. We can and should use instructional tools from both categories in our learning communities.  In a world where we can customize every aspect of our lives, that should extend to education as well.

In researching what the brain goes through in learning, indicators show certain benefits of physically holding a book as our eyes move across the page. It's a process that helps some learners connect more deeply with the text, while others thrive in a purely digital experience and prefer it that way.

There are living, breathing examples of these learning preferences all around us.  Some learners will choose print books every time while others prefer the digital copy.  Some learners prefer both formats, depending on what they are reading and why.  Each option delivers something different. There is a definite need for both working in a symbiotic relationship. Digital supports the actual print material and vice versa.


Access vs. Fatigue

In Lindsay, California, we are very fortunate with our Internet connectivity position. We have access for all learners due to the city-wide Wi-Fi project, so you have Wi-Fi at home for free if you go to school in Lindsay. It's a unique circumstance that's not available everywhere.  It provides a level of equity for all learners and has been in place for many years now.

Even though learners can lose connectivity, or may need a replacement part for their device, there is a system in place to fix issues like this.  In the meantime, learners can rely on print materials. Even if connectivity is great and digital access is glitch-free, learners deserve more than one path to learning. Making a forced decision saying, "We're not going to give up the print materials ever," or "We're not going to give up digital access ever," is a strategy that limits the learner, and ultimately the learning. Instead, say, "You don't have to choose. We're in a world where you can have both!"  In a time where even our coffee can be “just the way we want it,” this doesn’t seem like a hard choice. Providing the ideal learning experience and being learner-centered is something that we are accustomed to as a result of the Performance Based System in Lindsay.

Life, including education, is about balance. There can be such a thing as too much digital access and screen time. Just as a lack of device access can be a challenge, unlimited screen time can also create problems. Even when learners are not on a computer, parents must contend with mobile phone use, tablets, video game systems, and television. Children often have phones at much younger ages, and there is a level of caution that needs to be taken.

In a broader sense, learners need to be able to compete globally, and without access and skill in technology, they are not going to be competitive. It's a substantial reality of the future that should not be dismissed.  We owe it to our learners to help continue to create a more level playing field.


Understanding the balance

There is a need to understand the balance ─ a necessity for both paper and digital content. Last spring, when facilities closed because of COVID, our district rushed to prepare for continued learning. For teachers, many had to learn the set-up for Zoom and other online communications without much forewarning. With both print and digital materials available during this time, we were able to quickly prepare for learners to avoid a loss in momentum. 

When we began the academic year in August, 2020, we had a week of “induction,” where learners came in for their materials and were able to meet their teacher face-to-face, albeit from 15 feet away and with proper COVID precautions. All supplies were placed in a big box for them to take home. For some, it acted as a portable desk for those who did not have a designated workspace at home. Inside those boxes existed computers, chargers, mice, and all the digital components needed alongside their print workbooks for Ready Math, some ELA materials, and multiple journals to write things down. In many respects, the contents of the box symbolized the two worlds of learning coming together and working harmoniously.



As digital options infiltrate schools and extended learning environments more and more, it is worth keeping an eye on learners who might absorb new content better using other methods. Digital is known to provide more readily accessible data, but that should be only one factor in determining when to use digital tools. Offering more options outside of the digital realm, such as print materials, can help learners who need a physical copy in order to become more engaged.

Additionally, not all districts function in the same way as Lindsay USD―we know that universal Wi-Fi in our community makes us unique and helps to create equity, but all districts can provide print resources. This can be one, often overlooked, option to soften the impact of the digital divide. In the case of remote learning, where some learners are unable to log in and learn, the availability of a print option at least guarantees that some form of education can take place, avoiding learning gaps becoming larger and larger with each passing day.


About the Author

Cinnamon Scheufele is Principal of Washington Learning Community, an elementary school in California’s Lindsay Unified School District


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