When Jakob Nielsen, a web researcher, tested 232 people for how they read pages on screens, a curious disposition emerged. Dubbed "the guru of web page usability" by The New York Times, Nielsen has gauged user habits and screen experiences for years, charting people's online navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision moves and rests.
In this study he found that people took in hundreds of pages "in a pattern that's very different from what you learned in school". It looks like a capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed their descent quickens and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown near the middle of the page. Near the bottom, eyes move almost vertically; the lower right corner of the page is largely ignored. It happens quickly, too. "F for fast," Nielsen wrote in a column. "That's how users read your precious content."
The F-pattern isn't the only odd feature of online reading that Nielsen has uncovered in studies conducted through the consulting business Nielsen Norman Group. (Donald A. Norman is a cognitive scientist who came from Apple; Nielsen was at Sun Microsystems.) A decade ago, he issued an alert entitled How Users Read on the Web. It opened bluntly: "They don't."
In the eye-tracking test, only one in six subjects read web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, and colour and typeface variations. In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, informational email messages and news feeds, Nielsen noted: "Reading is not even the right word."
The subjects usually read only the first two words in headlines and they ignored the introductory sections. They wanted the nut and nothing else.
A 2003 Nielsen warning asserted that a PDF file strikes users as a content blob and they won't read it unless they print it out. A book-like page on screen, it seems, turns them off and sends them away.
Another Nielsen test found that teenagers skip through the web even faster than adults do, but with a lower success rate for completing tasks online (55 per cent compared with 66 per cent). Nielsen writes: "Teens have a short attention span and want to be stimulated. That's also why they leave sites that are difficult to figure out." For them, the web isn't a place for reading and study and knowledge. It spells the opposite. "Teenagers don't like to read a lot on the web. They get enough of that at school."
Those and other trials by Nielsen amount to an important research project that helps explain one of the great disappointments of education in our time: the huge investment schools have made in technology and the meagre returns such funds have earned. At the same time, universities have raced to out-technologise one another. But while enthusiasm swells, smart classrooms multiply and students cheer, the results remain negative.
When University of Chicago economists evaluated California schools before and after federal technology subsidies had granted 30 per cent more schools in the state internet access, they determined that "the additional investments in technology ... had no immediate impact on measured student outcomes".
In March 2007, the US National Centre for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance evaluated 16 award-winning education technologies and found that "test scores were not significantly higher in classrooms using selected reading and mathematics software products".
Last spring a New York state school district decided to drop its laptop program after years of offering it. The school board president announced why: "After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement: none."
Those conclusions apply to middle school and high school programs, not to higher education (which has yet to produce any similarly large-scale evaluations). Nevertheless, the results bear consideration by those pushing for more e-learning on campuses.
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