We Don’t Exactly Read On The Net

In The Chronicle of Higher Education an article by Mark Bauerlein reports on research tracking the eye movements of people reading online material.

The research shows a staccato, non-linear pattern that bops from spot to spot.

Jakob Nielsen, called “the guru of Web page ‘usability’” by the New York Times, has gauged user habits for years. Nielsen, previously at Sun Microsystems, is a partner in the consulting busines Nielsen Norman Group. Donald A Norman is a cognitive scientist who came from Apple.

In a test of 232 people, Nielsen charted people’s navigations and aims, using eye-tracking tools to map how vision moves and rests.

What he found was that people’s eyes took in hundreds of pages in a “pattern that’s very different from what you learned in school.”

It looks like the capital letter F. At the top, users read all the way across, but as they proceed down they quicken and horizontal sight contracts, with a slowdown around the middle of the page. Near the bottom eyes move almost vertically, with the lower right corner virtually ignored.

“F for fast,” writes Nielsen. “That’s how they read your precious content.” (A decade ago, he titled a piece called “How Users Read on the Web.” It began — bluntly — “They don’t.”)

In the eye-tracking test, only one in six read Web pages linearly, sentence by sentence. The rest jumped around chasing keywords, bullet points, visuals, color and typefaces.

In another experiment on how people read e-newsletters, email and news feeds, Nielsen expostulated ” ‘Reading’ is not even the right word.” They read only the first two words in headlines; they ignored introductory sections. They wanted the ‘nut’ — nothing else.

A 2003 assertion from Nielsen warned that a PDF file strikes users as a “content blob.” They won’t read it unless they print it.

And a “booklike” page on screen turns them off and sends them packing.

Teenagers skip through the Web even faster than adults, another Nielsen test found, but with a lower success rate for completing online tasks. “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 teens, says Nielsen, the Web isn’t a place for reading and study and knowledge. It’s just the opposite: a place to have fun.

Classroom Technology: One of the Great Educational Disappointments of Our Time

Schools have made enormous investments in technology, with meager returns. Money has poured into public-school classrooms since 1996, after the Telecommunications Act of that year. Colleges and universities have raced to “out-technologize” each other.

Enthusiasm builds, Bauerlein writes; e-bills are passed, smart classrooms multiply, students cheer — and the results keep coming back negative.

A New York study in 2008, one of many national studies, reported, “After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none.”

One problem is the online reading habits kids have developed outside of school. It’s not so much about the content they want, or whether they use the Web for homework or not. It seems to be about the reading habits they employ.

“They race across the surface,” writes Bauerlein, “dicing language and ideas into bullets and graphics, seeking what they already want and shunning the rest. They convert history, philosophy, literature, civics and fine art into information, material to retrieve and pass along.”

Yes, it’s a kind of literacy, he says. But it breaks down in the face of a dense argument, a Modernist poem, a long political tract, and other texts that require steady focus and linear attention — in a word: SLOW READING.


So, did you read this entire article word for word?

(Psst, I didn’t. 😛 )


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