Digital devices take reading back to its social roots


e-reader imageWhen I imagine my ideal setting for reading a good book, I think of a comfy chair, a cup of coffee and some soft background music. Your perfect reading situation might be different, but it is likely that what you imagine is solitary.

We are used to reading alone, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon which only became possible because of historical developments in print technology. Now digital technology is creating possibilities for reading to become social again.

The Digital Reading Network symposium held at Bournemouth University on 19th June 2014 covered a wide range of topics related to reading digital texts, but two strong themes were ‘social reading’ and the different affordances of devices.

Social reading

The keynote speaker, Bob Stein, (Director of the Institute for the Future of the Book) took the audience through some of the history of the internet and its relationship with the book, coming up-to-date with a demonstration of Socialbook, his ‘platform based on the idea that “a book is a place” where readers can congregate’. In Socialbook, users can upload texts (in .pub format) then make comments in the margins that are shared with others they invite to read with them. An example was shown of a US college text where students had filled the margins with lively interaction.

Social reading for teaching and learning?

Out of copyright texts offer immense potential for sharing, annotating and even modifying in creative ways. One example is The Open Utopia which opens up Thomas More’s Utopia so that users can read it, listen to it, make and share annotations, modify the text, view or create and/or share their own Utopia-themed images. You can find many more online texts to explore via the Open Library.

The sorts of interactions already possible on platforms such as Socialbook suggest great potential for students to learn critical reading skills in this sort of environment and one day we may be able to look for evidence of students’ learning in the engagement they have with each other around and within digital texts.

Not all digital reading screens are the same

many devices_ereaders

It is tempting to talk about ‘digital reading’ as if it is a homogenous experience, but the extent to which your digital reading can be sociable will depend on the device(s) you are using and whether it is connected to the internet.

The way that you interact with a text may also be influenced by the type of device, be it desktop, laptop or handheld. Each will have different abilities and limitations – some screens are larger but others are easier to curl up with. One will easily allow you to annotate a book you are reading where another won’t, but will pop in your pocket while you are travelling.

As teachers and learners, digital reading is already becoming an increasingly important part of the way that we do things. If we explore the potential of mobile devices and digital reading technologies available now and in the future we can expect to add the online book as a new social learning space with limitless possibilities for connecting, collaborating and creating.



Image: creative commons licensed (BY-NC) flickr photo by nikkorsnapper:


Image: creative commons licensed (BY-SA) flickr photo by tribehut:




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2 comments on “Digital devices take reading back to its social roots
  1. Emma says:

    I see things like Kindles (even those with a keyboard) as offering a very different experience to reading on a more interactive device.
    Making shareable notes, with the Kindle’s keyboard would drive me mad …
    On a tablet, though, with the ease of adding, I could see it being useful.
    That sentence “One will easily allow you to annotate a book you are reading where another won’t, but will pop in your pocket while you are travelling.” to me, is critical. Not only is it device dependant, it’s also related to the person & the type of thing you’re reading.
    For me, if it’s a novel, I don’t want others interpretations / predictions for who dunnit / visualisations of what the character looks like; I want to do that internally.
    However, for a text book, it’s useful to have annotations as to alternative ways to do things, interpretations etc.

    • Anne Hole says:

      Thanks for reading and commenting Emma.
      I agree with you. For me, it would also make a difference whether I was reading a novel purely for pleasure or for study as well – in which case ‘who dunnit’ would be less important than how the author ‘dunnit’ and I might be prepared to share my ideas about that.
      It just goes to show how many different types of reading there are and how different devices and ways of digital reading might work with them across different types of text.

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