About Digital Reading Platforms: Discussion with Prof. Kathleen A. Roskos and Prof. Jeremy S. Brueck

Name of Scholar / Expert:

Prof. Kathleen A. Roskos

Prof. Jeremy S. Brueck

Who are Prof. Kathleen A. Roskos and Prof. Jeremy S. Brueck?

Kathleen A. Roskos, PhD, is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Education and School Psychology at John Carroll University, where she teaches courses in reading assessment and intervention. Formerly an elementary classroom teacher, Prof. Roskos has served in a variety of educational roles, including as director of federal programs in the public schools, department chair in higher education, director of the Ohio Literacy Initiative at the Ohio Department of Education, and a coprincipal investigator of several Early Reading First federal projects. Prof. Roskos studies early literacy development, teacher learning, and the instructional design of professional development for educators, and has published research articles, chapters, and books on these topics.

Jeremy S. Brueck, PhD, is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in educational technology, primary grades education and educational leadership. In 2014, he received the Ohio Board of Regents Best EdTech Collegiate Innovator Award. He has been researching the use of ebooks, digital media, mobile devices and the development of transliteracy skills in the design of high-quality language and literacy-rich environments for over a decade. His current research examines digital media platforms in terms of platform affordances, digital architecture of media, and dashboard analytics.

Why is it essential that parents, teachers and practitioners know about ebooks and digital reading platforms?

 We are in the midst of the smart device revolution. Beyond just mobile phones, society in 2020 brings with it household items and fashion accessories equipped and ready to connect. Today’s youth have left live television behind. Media consumption has shifted from network television to digital on demand streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and others. Children are consuming media via device, whether it is music via Spotify on their phones, or video via YouTube on laptops and Chromebooks. As such, digital reading platforms have begun to emerge to take advantage of the connected child. Tech-savvy parents and teachers can provide children and students with anytime-anyplace access to thousands of age-appropriate titles, which in the near future, could be accessed by toddlers from a touchscreen on the refrigerator door.

Literacy in this digital age is also much more than interacting with solely traditional print materials. In addition to the books, newspapers and magazines past generations are all comfortable with, we now interact with digital text, ebooks, blogs, websites, video and audio. These additional components mean literacy in this smart device revolution is not a linear process, but more of a hyperlinked experience, with an emphasis on locating information, reading, processing, validating, find links to other relevant information and then moving on.

What does it mean for children that are learning to read and interact with a variety of forms of literacy materials? How will children interact with literacy in the environment of the smart home? How does this impact the way that we can teach kids how to read, write, communicate and be literate? Do we need to have different expectations for what it means to be literate in our world today? Questions such as these must be considered as we move forward in the world of teaching and learning, specifically in the area of literacy and reading.

Online reading programs are fast becoming part of students’ reading experiences at school and beyond. Despite a growing number of cloud-based digital reading programs in the educational marketplace, we know surprisingly little about their quality as curriculum products for supporting young readers’ development. The practical knowledge that school leaders need to make good decisions about the wide range of digital materials flooding into the educational marketplace is slim. Our research focuses on the effectiveness of ebook platforms as literacy curriculum resources. Our central aim at this time has been to provide descriptive information to an emerging knowledge base on this topic. Our future work hopes to merge learning theory with design theory to provide a practical toolkit for the evaluation of digital reading platforms.

What is an ebook and digital reading platform and how can it enhance better thinking and learning?

 Ebooks possess digital features designed to provide evidence-based instruction. For example, an ebook or other online text that offers animations to support the text would be similar to an adult or teacher who offers explanation of what is happening within a story. Having students repeatedly use the Read-to- Me feature of an ebook would be akin to a teacher offering repeated reading of a text to support understanding of story plot. Ebooks can scaffold the reading experience for learners of all ages, enabling literacy instruction to occur at times and places that are outside the classroom and embedded “within the book”.

Digital reading platforms are software as a service (SaaS) which enables children and adults to read, write, communicate and interact with electronic text. Beyond that, these platforms provide a comprehensive web and mobile interface to license and deliver content to districts, schools, teachers, parents and students anywhere at any time. A learning management system (LMS) is the backbone of the digital reading platform and is used to deliver, manage, assess, and record learning and progress via the Web. Digital reading platforms leverage the affordances of an LMS to deliver content, handle registration and administration, and provide skills gap analysis, tracking and reporting.

Research has shown that ebooks offer several high level design features beneficial for young learners, such as (a) oral reading with text highlights that illuminate the nature of print (e.g., word boundaries); (b) hotspot activation aligned with text; (c) a dictionary option that allows repeated action by the child; and (d) a game mode separate from text mode. The multimedia features in ebooks can improve inference skills in story reading and the game-like interactivity in ebooks can stimulate story comprehension and word learning, especially when children’s attention is guided to these purposes. Ebooks have also been shown to motivate children to be active readers. When using ebooks, children tend to more naturally investigate words, images and interactives in the reading environment. It seems the ebook may invite play, and this is a powerful motivator for engaging with print.

In addition to features found in a print book, ebooks provide scaffolding through narrations, animations and interactive media, which support young children who are developing emergent literacy skills. Scaffolds in ebooks include searching capacity, hyperlinks, audio and visual enhancements, and in some cases, hot-spot pop-up definitions for words. For users with learning difficulties or disabilities, ebooks offer text-to-speech capabilities and print highlighting, as well as allowing changes in font size, features which are not possible in print books.

Regarding ebooks and digital reading platforms, what have you found are some of the biggest challenges parents, teachers and practitioners face?  What are some recommended ways to overcome them?

 The role of ebooks in the teaching of reading is emerging. The ebook with its growing number of affordances introduces not only new possibilities into the reading experience (e.g., highlighted text, embedded audio and video), but also a new level of accessibility anytime, anywhere. An entire ebook collection can be archived on a small, mobile device that literally houses a pocket size library. Instructional guidance for effective teaching with ebooks, however, is scant, leaving teachers to trial and error efforts at incorporating ebooks into their routine practice. As a result, the ebook can easily become edutainment in an already packed instructional day.

Digital reading programs consist of a learning platform (affordances), an ebook collection (digital books), screen pages (digital enhancements) & a dashboard (analytics). There are a growing number of digital reading platforms containing large ebook collections available for schools and districts to choose from. These digital reading platforms are increasingly used as curriculum resources for independent reading at school and home, although benefits for students’ reading motivation and skill are still unclear. We know very little about their quality as curriculum products for supporting young readers’ development.

Research has centered primarily on digital book quality overlooking other digital resources found in digital reading platforms, such as dashboard analytics. Few studies have critically examined these cloud-based reading systems as resources for promoting reading practice. Fewer still examine how they are impacting students’ overall print & digital reading skills.

One problem for researchers & educators alike is availability of dependable tools that describe the nature of these programs. Analytic tools are essential for defining, specifying & reporting how well these programs perform. Analytic tools are the precursors of practical, everyday tools; they organize what we know from research into categories and criteria that can support systematic and trustworthy observation of a product, process or event. They are an essential step in creating reliable, valid assessment tools for evaluation of curriculum products (books and instructional materials).

Potential challenges faced by those who wish to move towards teaching in an ebook-equipped classroom can include technical difficulties, distracting animations, audio that is not connect to the text, and digital book handling difficulties.  It is important for parents and teachers to understand they may encounter these types of challenges when using ebooks but to know that the cognitive affordances of ebooks outweigh them. To overcome the challenges and take full advantage of the opportunities ebooks offer, parents and teachers should adjust their selection criteria, focusing on selection of high quality ebooks for use with children. Pay close attention to the scaffolds provided in ebooks and ensure the interactive elements are well intentioned for learning to read by thoroughly previewing ebooks prior to use. Select only the best ebooks to use with children.

Ebooks provide an opportunity for storybook reading without direct adult participation. Parents and teachers should make ebook selections based on genre, content area connections and digital features that enhance literary content. They should focus on selecting ebooks that contain animations, illustrations and audio that support the text. Parents and teachers should be wary of ebooks that contain audio, multimedia or interactivity that is superficial to the story and refrain from using ebooks with distracting digital features at home or in the classroom.

Teachers should use ebooks to adapt and extend traditional comprehension and oral reading practices they are already familiar with to support learning. One way to get started is through the use of Before, During and After (B/D/A) reading strategies. Teachers can use a number of familiar shared book reading activities with ebooks, such as the introduction to the title, author, and illustrator on the initial screen page of the ebook. With this approach, evidence-based instructional techniques, such as making predictions, asking/answering questions, learning new words, linking to prior experience, and discussing print and picture can be retained.

What are some of the important signs that will indicate to parents, teachers and practitioners the successful functioning/implementation of ebooks and digital reading platforms?

Presently educators and publishers have relatively few assessment measures for reviewing and evaluating digital reading program quality. This lacking research-based tools for reviewing and vetting digital reading programs impedes informed decision-making in choosing digital resources for purposes of teaching and learning. Our most recent study from Journal of Cognitive Education and Psychology advances this aspect of curriculum product evaluation. It tests an existing set of tools with the goal of improving them for application under real conditions and combines them to create a prototype screening instrument for wider scale testing in field studies. The study’s results help us to gain ground, in that the tool set visualizes and makes concrete theoretical ideas and research describing important qualities of digital reading programs, however, there is much more work to be done.

There is that saying among builders–to do the job right you need the right tools. Presently there is an acute shortage of the “right” tools to assess and evaluate digital reading programs. This matters because one of the major steps to ensuring effective use of digital reading products is to make sure they are of good quality in the first place. And to ensure quality, we need evaluation tools that analyze program components, and inform critical review. Good assessment tools can help to unlock teacher productivity, creativity and innovation in using digital reading programs effectively to develop engaged readers and ensuring a rich e-reading environment in the classroom.

Visit our Tools page for  these scholars’ recommended and applicable literature sources on digital reading platforms.

Prof. Brueck may be contacted at brueckje@mountunion.edu

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