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In The Age Of Screen Time, Is Paper Dead?

Paige Vickers for NPR

Paper ... or glass?

Advances in laptops and technology are pushing screens into schools like never before. So what does this drive toward digital classrooms mean for that oldest and simplest of touch screens: a plain old sheet of paper?

It may seem a wasteful and obsolete technology, ready to follow the slate chalkboard and the ditto machine into the Smithsonian, or a flat, white invitation to creativity, just waiting for some learning magic to happen.

And when it comes to learning and retention, is there any difference between reading and writing on an electronic "tablet" or a paper one?

Not surprisingly, the good folks over at the Paper and Packaging Board aren't ready to give up on paper just yet. They've sent me their new report about it, called "Paper and Productive Learning." It's printed on glossy paper and it arrived on my non-digital desktop via non-email, with a stamp and everything.

"Read on," it encourages, "to discover the many ways paper remains essential for productive learning in today's technology-fueled culture."

As you might expect in a report from an organization aimed at promoting paper and packaging, it's pretty full of pro-paper information. "In many ways, paper is still the most important technology for productive learning," it says.

Here are just a few of the fun facts and findings:

  • 96 percent of parents think that paper is "an essential part of children being able to achieve their educational goals."
  • Among junior high and high school students, 70 percent prepare for tests by taking handwritten class notes, and 60 percent make and use flashcards.
  • 50 percent of seventh- and eighth-graders agree they "learn information best if they write it down by hand."
  • College students like paper, too: 81 percent, for example, say they always or often use paper tools to prepare for exams.
  • So there you go — an (admittedly promotional) plug for good old paper. It's also a reminder of how pervasive paper remains in schools today, and it's not just the paper industry saying it.

    The strongest argument for paper over digital seems to be in the area of taking notes. Several studies suggest that college students should write lecture notes by hand — on paper — rather than typing them on their laptops, according to this NPR piece from 2016. For one thing, "laptops and tablets have a tendency to be distracting — it's so easy to click over to Facebook in that dull lecture."

    But the researchers found there was a larger issue at play.

    "When people type their notes, they have this tendency to try to take verbatim notes and write down as much of the lecture as they can," researcher Pam A. Mueller of Princeton University told NPR's Rachel Martin. "The students who were taking longhand notes in our studies were forced to be more selective — because you can't write as fast as you can type. And that extra processing of the material that they were doing benefited them."

    Of course, technology and screens have great potential to improve learning in areas like math or special education. And pioneers like Sal Khan have demonstrated how computers can reach millions of students in ways print never could.

    Smartphones, text messages and other technologies are changing schools and learning in profound ways: in areas like student engagement and financial aid and parental involvement.

    And yet, as my colleague Anya Kamenetz notes, "the digital classroom has its own problems." Like cost. You have to buy expensive equipment and maintain it, and there's training on software and devices. And the constant updates.

    "Paper is reliable," says Kamenetz. "And everyone knows how it works."

    What about reading?

    In terms of memory, or retention or how we process information, is there any difference between reading on paper and reading on a screen?

    It's a question researchers still haven't — definitively — answered.

    Our friends over at the Hechinger Report weighed in recently with this piece: A Textbook Dilemma: Digital or Paper, which notes that there's far less certainty — and large-scale research — on this question than you'd expect.

    The report I got in the mail touches on this, too, with an article by Naomi S. Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University in Washington, D.C.

    Baron cites her own research showing that college students say they concentrate better when reading in print. But then she adds this: " ... we probably remember more of what we read in print. I say 'probably' because researchers are still figuring out" how to test this memory question.

    Beyond all that, though, looms the fear that author Philip Yancey explored recently in The Washington Post. The fear that with so many sources of information out there, books and long-form reading may be getting pushed aside: "The Internet and social media have trained my brain," Yancey writes, "to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around."

    I feel this, too. I used to carry a book with me just about all the time. Now, I'm reading mostly on my iPhone.

    Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

    Steve Drummond heads up two teams of journalists at NPR. NPR Ed is a nine-member team that launched in March 2014, providing deeper coverage of learning and education and extending it to audiences across digital platforms. Code Switch is an eight-person team that covers race and identity across the network, and in an award-winning weekly podcast.