Reading articles on the web can be very stressful. Pop-up ads, blinking advertisements, related and unrelated articles, sidebar widgets all vie for the coveted focus of my eye and brain. Although I make a conscious effort to ignore the extraneous rubble, I find myself pulling at the corner of the screen to make the viewing area smaller and hopefully block out the circus performing around the periphery. The “Reader” function on a Mac sometimes works, allowing you to just see the article, but not always. I find that getting information off of the internet is an exercise in eye and brain control as I try to force my eyes to stay on the topic. Here is an example:
In the article “Lazy Eyes” by Michael Agger, even as I read about how one should make online information easier for the reader to consume by presenting information in bulleted lists and small blocks of text, smack dab in the middle of his article is a distracting ad wanting me to click on it. Can you stick to the article content below? See how it spills outside the neat little reading rectangle… that’s even more distracting.
And surrounding this article are oodles of other distractions. It’s no wonder that online reading is “25% slower than reading on paper.” Our eyes are constantly dragged away from the text.
I can see what Michael Agger means by “Moby Dick” being a modern spa. Pure print on white paper. No extraneous distractions. Just give me a book and leave me in peace, and don’t you ever interrupt me while I’m reading a book, as Julian Smith so deftly admonishes his distractors.
From my own eye-tracking experiments, I have found that my eyes do go first to the main title but then, if there is an image or a moving gif on the page, that is the next stop for my attention. If those images have nothing to do with the information that I am seeking, then I am distracted by a feeling of annoyance that my time has been wasted and I attempt to find a way to eliminate the distraction so that I can get back on track.
I understand that advertisers and designers of commercial websites are very intentional in how they create these distractions, hoping that it will eventually end in us being distracted out of our money. If they know what our habits are, then we should know what their habits are and we should be teaching our students to be savvy internet viewers. More than that, our students should be savvy creators of content.
I think that George Lucas got it right when he said that students need to learn how to tell a story. They must acquire visual literacy. (Life on the Screen; Visual Literacy in Education) They can look up any kind of information that they want, but they now need to know how to interpret it and use it in a way that advances civilization and knowledge. “The human race survives on its educational system,” says Lucas. “The society that has a great educational system becomes the prominent society because that’s the way the human race survives.” Evolve and adapt or perish.
One of the greatest skills that we can teach our students, along with visual literacy, is the ability to quickly learn new ways of interacting with technology and making use of the new applications and ways of communicating that are continually evolving.
I recently rented “PressPausePlay” and watched this documentary which explores the democratization of content creation as anyone can now create and publish. The question is raised, “Does this water down and drown true talent or does the cream rise to the top?” One message that consistently comes through is that artists are constantly being presented with new technologies and ways to communicate, and the ones that learn quickly and play with those technologies are the ones who produce relevant, cutting edge creative content.
In order to survive and thrive in the modern world, our students need to learn how to creatively adapt and use technologies for their own purposes. While their eyes may be drawn to the flashiest new uses of digital tech, their brains must always be creating new and useful applications for these technologies.