Can audiobooks replace books in schools and colleges?

Audiobooks are hard to ignore. Almost every new book that comes out immediately is narrated as well (if only by fans) – such is the demand for the audible. Blogging platforms like Medium started attaching audio clips to some of their more popular long reads in order to expand the reach. It is no longer unusual for services like MyAdmission to get requests for audible notes to accompany edited texts with instructions on improvement.

It’s not only the question of accessibility – it’s the popular demand. However, audiobooks still remain barely more than entertainment. In the educational sector, they are lamentably underrepresented. There are two main reasons for this.

Teachers and scholars are still skeptical about the efficiency of audiobooks

The legitimacy of audiobooks was questioned right from the start. The very moment audiobooks became mainstream with the first Walkman cassette players, researchers begin to study material retention rates, comprehension, distraction, engagement, and whatnot. However, early studies failed to confirm the skepticism. Students who listened to the text were able to summarize it with equal precision compared their counterparts who read the same text.

However, until the digital revolution and the advent of mp3, audiobooks remained more of a niche product. In education, they were represented only as an auxiliary means in teaching foreign languages – to demonstrate the correct pronunciation and test comprehension of the speech.

The recent boom in audiobooks has stirred the controversy once again. The numerous researches provide contradictive and inconclusive results. The thing is that any disparities in the material retained can be attributed rather to the fact that students are just not very trained in listening as compared to reading. We get better in any activity the more we perform it. Students from the experiments are more accustomed to reading than listening. There is a high probability that with some practice their listening skills will improve.

Another reason why for audiobooks the retention rates might sometimes be lower is that a student listening to an audiobook is more likely to be engaged in some other activity at the same time. Many listen to books while performing housework chores, shopping, cooking, cycling, walking a dog, and we all know that multitasking isn’t the best friend of productivity. On the other hand, all these activities render traditional reading impossible, so it’s a choice between a material slightly less retained and no material whatsoever.

Moreover, Daniel Willingham, who studies reading for years, stresses that for our brain the difference between reading and listening to the same text is very small – it’s all about language processing and comprehension. Mental processes involved are the same except for “decoding” of text, aka figuring out what letters mean. Since this process becomes automatic in later grades of the school, there is no substantial difference for college students – and no considerable benefits of reading versus listening.

Inherent structural differences

The second reason why audiobooks are still underrepresented in education is that audio is not a “native” medium for STEM fields. There are certain books that cannot be consumed in an audio format entirely: calculus, geometry, physics – and all the other learning material rich in formulas and diagrams that are hard to grasp without actually looking at them.

When it comes to other disciplines, structural differences still present problems. Students are encouraged to read “actively”. That is making notes, highlighting important definitions, bookmarking relevant chapters. That can be done in printed or digital text format, however, it is practically unachievable in audio. Also, there is no possibility to embolden oritalicize something important to stress it in the first place. That’s one of the few structural impediments that really make audiobooks less suitable for academic usage in some fields.

There is also a question of spelling. For some scholarly terms coming from Greek and Latin figuring out the spelling from the way they sound can be difficult, hence the spelling problems for people who only listen to texts. On the flip side, however, those who listen know how to pronounce those tricky words correctly, which is not always the case with avid readers.

The benefits are still tremendous

However, when it comes to humanities, audiobooks would be an invaluable help. Humanities are notorious for the sheer volume of texts they require students to consume and process. Audiobooks are arguably a faster way to do it, moreover, they offer an opportunity to study in places and at times that could not accommodate traditional reading. This way, students are using the time that would otherwise be lost, for learning – while commuting, waiting in line, cleaning the room, running on the treadmill, etc. This is a great way to ease the academic strain without losing the quality of learning and the quantity of material processed.

Another notable benefit that is often overlooked is less strain for the eyes. It is no secret that printed pages and screens alike often prove too much for students’ eyesight. Especially if we consider that modern students relax and rest by engaging in social media, texting, and scrolling through the Instagram feed, severely straining their vision even further. The research found a strong link between myopia and college education. More audiobooks is a great way to alleviate this problem and provide some relief for students’ eyes.

People are natural listeners and storytellers. We evolved consuming information about the world and the experience of older generations while listening to the stories. We still do it when we are children. There is no reason why we should neglect this way of learning once we’ve mastered the decoding of written language. Reading and listening should not be pitted against each other, but work together to improve the learning experience and its efficiency.

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