Here’s a great New York Times article that every librarian who works with people under 18 should read: “Literacy Debate: Online, R U Really Reading?” by Motoko Rich. It deals with some critical issues that only a few scholars are looking at seriously – namely, is the reading that people do online fundamentally different from the kind of reading they do in a print book or magazine? And if so, how is it different?

Rich describes the ways people read online as often not having a clear beginning or end. Online readers skip and zip around – click, click, click – far more, and less thoughtfully, than print readers do, and leave one online message via a link without finishing it, often never to return. And most younger Web readers accept such leaping from text fragment to text fragment as the normal way to read online. The story also says:

Young people “aren’t as troubled as some of us older folks are by reading that doesn’t go in a line,” said Rand J. Spiro, a professor of educational psychology at Michigan State University who is studying reading practices on the Internet. “That’s a good thing because the world doesn’t go in a line, and the world isn’t organized into separate compartments or chapters.”

Some traditionalists warn that digital reading is the intellectual equivalent of empty calories. Often, they argue, writers on the Internet employ a cryptic argot that vexes teachers and parents. Zigzagging through a cornucopia of words, pictures, video and sounds, they say, distracts more than strengthens readers. And many youths spend most of their time on the Internet playing games or sending instant messages, activities that involve minimal reading at best.

And we all know that young people, even when reading sizable chunks of text, are also, as Rich mentions, seamlessly “reading” graphs, illustrations, anime, YouTube clips, and a huge mishmash of varied media. This isn’t the same as sitting in a chair or under a tree reading Charlotte’s Web or War and Peace. Can we really compare online reading to the traditional method of sitting with one’s attention focused on one format – plain old text – told by one storyteller, or one argument by a nonfiction author, without being turned aside? Is the ability to shift rapidly, not just from point of view to point of view, but also from text to animation to podcast, a more powerful skill than the ability to remain focused on a task for an extended period of time?

No one is certain yet what this massive change means, since Net literacy as we conceive of it now is only about ten years old. Educators are struggling to define exactly what “Net literacy” is, and how it will affect the way in which young people will learn the things they need to know to function in this century. Here’s a quote from the story that, depending on how progressive or conservative we are, will either stir our hearts or roll our eyes. Or maybe a little of both:

“Learning is not to be found on a printout,” David McCullough, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, said in a commencement address at Boston College in May. “It’s not on call at the touch of the finger. Learning is acquired mainly from books, and most readily from great books.”

Is McCullough correct any longer? I wonder, since so much of what we used to look up in dictionaries or encyclopedias we now find online (note the links in this quote, for example). So many of the facts we need to gather to write an essay or understand a concept are scattered like sesame seeds all over the Net, yet can be scooped up really quickly, thanks to Google. But are those scattered facts correct? Are they from a worthwhile source?

It’s the other kinds of literacy skills – the “boring” skills such as the abilities to focus, to evaluate, and to make informed judgments – that the coolness and speed of the Internet often fool young people into thinking they fully grasp or don’t especially need. Sometimes a human teacher – often armed with print books – can be a better way to gain the talents all thinking people must have.