Digital Literacy

The paperless student: reading on screen

Digital capabilities, specifically those for effective use of digital devices for reading documents, are incorrectly assumed to be part of students’ skills set. Whilst digital devices are prevalent, this does not mean that all their features are known or that the most appropriate software is installed on them. Students may be familiar with what they know, but not realise options for improving reading documents on screen.

The Reading On Screen site was borne out of student feedback from the Department of Social Policy and Social Work (SPSW), trying to address knowledge and skills gaps in relation to student and staff use of tablets, laptops and desktops to read and work with digital documents (see Cornock & Parkinson, 2013). This project is of interest to anyone who has witnessed the increased dependency on digital documents and wants to better support their students’ use of documents and devices in class and for study. The work was presented at ALT-C 2014.

Careful of making assumptions

Central to our argument is that we must be careful not to assume users hold a practical level of confidence or competencies with digital literacy. Looking into this, we drew upon data captured during induction week from SPSW students and found that 40% of students surveyed lacked confidence in reading documents on screen (see slide 7). Interestingly, when comparing lack of confidence against confidence in other areas of digital literacy, there was only a very weak correlation (0-0.2), however none of these relationships were statistically significant. The same was true when comparing confidence against the different devices students owned and whether the student was in school or college the previous year. This appears to suggest that reading on screen confidence is an issue for all users, regardless of their device preferences or general IT confidence.

Technical difficulties or user behaviour?

Our interpretation supported the view of Ackerman & Lauterman (2012), who suggested that problems reading off digital screens was due to user behaviour rather than technical limitation of devices, particularly in the context of much better screen technology. To explore this further we looked at the number of visits to the different pages on the Reading on Screen site. Aside from pages that look at Kindle notes, Gmail text size and annotating PDFs that have been highly ranked in Google, pages providing advice on how to focus attention and viewing documents full screen have proved popular (slide 10). This suggests to us that users are looking for ways to improve their skills using devices, not because of the technology, but to address what Ackerman & Lauterman describe as “less effective reading habits on screen than on paper” (2012:1817).

Filling the unknown skills gap

Our inclusion of assistive technologies has helped to address these concerns. In particular, we have not labelled such software or processes as ‘for disabled students’, but included links within pages addressing the reading on screen issues that all users face. Judging by our small scale survey of website users, it appears that people are finding useful additions to their digital literacy skills as a result of the Reading on Screen site, uncovering new ways of engaging with digital documents on different devices they were not even aware of.

Supporting resources


Ackerman, R. & Lauterman, T. (2012). Taking reading comprehension exams on screen or on paper? A metacognitive analysis of learning texts under time pressure. Computers in Human Behaviour, 28, 1816-1828.

Cornock, M. and Parkinson, B. (2013). Encouraging use of digital resources: responding to student feedback about problems of reading on screen. Presentation at the 3rd Annual Higher York eLearning Conference, 4 June 2013, York St John University. Available at


Adapted from an original post on the ELDT blog reporting back on a co-authored paper presented at ALT-C in September 2014 with Blayn Parkinson: The paperless student: supporting reading on screen. The Reading on Screen site and associated research was conducted as part of my VLE Coordinator role in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, University of York.

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