Online Vs Offline Reading Case Studies

In 1990, a study was conducted to examine the effect of hypertext on learning quality. There were two groups in the study; one group was provided with electronic hypertext documents and the other with traditional paper documents. Then, the two groups were asked to answer a series of questions based on their readings and research (Carr)[1].Because the group which used hypertext was exposed to a cognitive overload that flooded its working memory, it demonstrated a much poorer performance than the group which depended on traditional paper and which experienced a much more stable flow of information.

In another study in 2001 which was meant to examine the difference between reading a story online with links and in a traditional linear text format. The group which was reading the story online experienced a hard time keeping up with the events and they felt like the story wasn’t flowing smoothly. That group has also taken a longer time to finish the story. On the other hand, the people who were reading in a linear format reported a deeper comprehension of the story and they were able to retain more information (Carr)[1]. In another study conducted in 1999, the number of links was shown to be an important variable. Zhu, a psychologist, compared the quality of learning measured by an MCQ test and a summary in order to examine the effect of having a larger number of links. The study was divided into two groups; the first group had hypertexts with 3-7 links while the second group had hypertext with 8-12 links. The group with the fewer links proved to have experienced better learning than the group with more links because the former experienced less distractions[2]. Again, the links were proven to be an irresistible distraction which leaves the reader mind blown and confused.

In 2007, in a study to examine the effect of multimedia use on focused learning, one group was asked to watch an online presentation on the country of Mali, the other group was asked to do the same but was equipped with an audiovisual window playing related information about the presentation. The subject had the power to play and pause this audiovisual window. When both groups were asked questions regarding the presentation, the first group outperformed the second group which was more likely to say, “I did not learn anything from this presentation”. The other group found the presentation much more enjoyable and educational (Rockwell and Singleton)[3]. Having the exigency to pause and decide whether to pay attention to the audiovisual window or the presentations itself, has taken much of their attention and has left them bustling between the two and unable to grasp any of them.


The above studies show supportive evidence for the claims that were presented in Brain Alterations. The subjects were faced with multiple links and hence multiple sources of information to choose from. They suffered from an exhaustion of their working memory which could not contain the diversified flood of information invading it. They were constantly stopped by those links scattered across the pages and which acted like stations interrupting their rail of thoughts and offering them the chance to get off. Constant evaluations and judgments had to be made and these took a huge energy that should’ve been committed to the reading itself.

Does this mean that hyperlinks and integrated multimedia actually undermine the learning processes? As a matter of fact those web features can enhance the learning to a huge extent; that is the reason those innovations were created for originally. Let’s say that I started browsing by checking friends’ updates on Facebook, I chat for a while, get in touch with that friend I have been meaning to call since forever, then I find this quote which a friends has written. I find the quote pretty intriguing so I Google it to try and find its author. I am welcomed with a Wikipedia entry for the author and then a series of links and references. One of the references catches my attention so I click on it, it turns out it’s a commentary article regarding a book published by the author. I log on to the university’s online library and I search the book… The above example shows how hyperlinks and web surfing could be an interesting learning experience where you can chase down the information rather than having the information fed to you as is the case many times. But in order for this example to work out the way I described it, much attention control was required of me. I had the agency to jump from one topic to another, I had the angency to take a bite from every page without really getting the taste of it but I refused. When I was on that Facebook page, I had to ignore other intriguing links and focus on one. When I Googled the quote, I had to overlook other results that had caught my attention because I had only one goal in mind. While looking at the Wikipedia page, I had to ignore my cell phone signaling the arrival of a new text message. I had to block out an email alert while searching the book… Keeping focus on the web requires tremendous attention control. Our attention on the web is like a wild animal that needs to be constantly tamed.

1. Carr, Nicholas G. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Print.
2. DeStefano, Diana and Jo-Anne LeFevre. "Cognitive Load in Hypertext Reading: A Review." Computers in Human Behavior (2007): 1616-1641. Web.
3. Rockwell, Steven and Loy Singleton. "The Effect of the Modality of Presentation of Streaming Multimedia on Information Acquisition." Media Physchology (2007): 179-191. Web.