Thursday, February 4, 2010

Economist's Notebook: Kids and Technology

The other night I watched PBS's show Frontline which explored the implications of kids growing up with so much technology, information and social media.

The show's host wondered what the implication of this was for kids who grow up in this environment and are now in college. Here is a excerpt of a summary from the show's web site:

"I teach the most brilliant students in the world," says MIT professor and clinical psychologist Sherry Turkle, who describes the challenges of teaching students who are surfing the Internet and texting during class. "But they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things."

A multitasker herself, Dretzin travels to California to the Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab, where Stanford professor Clifford Nass has been studying the effectiveness of self-proclaimed multitaskers. After taking one of Nass' tests, Dretzin is shocked by her poor results. "It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we've done suggests they're worse at analytic reasoning," Nass tells Dretzin. "We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly."

But supporters of teaching with technology say it is vital for educators to keep students engaged by using the tools students have so thoroughly mastered in their everyday lives. "We have to be interactive, because [students] are accustomed to sitting in front of a screen, and they've got five windows up, and they're talking to three people at the same time," says Michael LaSusa, co-principal of New Jersey's Chatham High School. "We have to capture the attention of students. We almost have to be entertainers." In the South Bronx, Digital Nation finds administrators at a local public middle school who credit increased use of technology with helping boost both student attendance and standardized test scores.

My experience has shaped my opinions about the impact of technology and learning and I can describe myself as a skeptic: I have tried lots of different ways of delivering information and knowledge and have found much better learning results when I eschew technology and pick up the chalk. Power Point is absolutely a disaster as a main teaching tool - students quickly zone out, download the slides and not show up, or just find it hard to digest information provided in this way [economics is probably particularly bad for this]. They also tend to not like the class nearly as much ex-post - evaluations reveal dissatisfaction with classes delivered this way.

Now, I can entertain easily - I can use technology to provide information in a snappy, zippy, wiz-bang way and students love it because they are not bored - but they are also learning very little. The fact is, in my opinion, that learning is hard and there are really no good shortcuts for subjects that are deep. Fighting boredom has always been a main challenge of students, it is only in this hyper-digital world that we think that this is bad or unnecessary. For struggling K-12 schools the allure is obvious: by entertaining students you keep them engaged and if they were previously learning almost nothing, their outcomes will probably improve, but this only gets you so far.

But this is actually not my main point. The part that I was most fascinated by was a bit about how technology means advance and that you always loose something in the process. The example given was when writing and then printing were invented: the tradition of storytelling - which meant an amazing ability to remember an enormous amount of facts - was lost. Writing and printing allowed access to information, and the preservation of information, but at the expense of memory: our ability to remember got worse. Thus the new distracted, multi-tasking generation may have lost the ability to concentrate and follow long thought processes, but they have gained in many other ways.

My take on this, as an economist is that the invention of writing and printing clearly made us more productive so it was an advance that was incontrovertibly good. The ability to memorize was a coping mechanism. Clearly personal computers had a similar productivity enhancing effect. But has social media, iPods, texting, etc. had a similar productivity enhancing effect? Because what has been lost seems clear to me. The answer to me is not clear because it is hard to know how the economy will evolve and what future job skills will be especially useful. Some jobs will require these skills, but will most? I worry that most (good) jobs will still require mastery of basic skills of writing and composition, math and the ability to concentrate.

I am a skeptic...


Unknown said...

I would also consider myself a skeptic of educational techniques that cater to a multitaksing environment. As a recent college grad I easily say that the most effective courses, the ones I got the most out of, were those where I was simply forced to sit down and take notes. Even from a grading perspective, I'll wager that the students who only focus on the lecture will tend to outperform their "multitasking" peers. Can be tough to grasp even the basics of game theory when you're busy updating your Facebook status...

Rebecca Davies said...

Though I'm not the most avid texter and I stick with the simpler forms of telephones, laptops, and music listening devices, I have developed a strong interest and belief in the potential for technological tools to further classroom education. I've had a few classes in college that have utilized wikipages, video editing, and other new media techniques to investigate and understand the subject matter, whether it's public housing in Chicago or censored films in China. New technologies, especially collaborative web-based mediums, can help students engage with visual and audio material to supplement their literary study and allow them the chance to share their learning with the world.

Problems arise when technology is used for the same purposes that other mediums already fulfill(re: chalkboards and PowerPoint), or when students have the ability to utilize technological devices for non-academic work in the classroom. I appreciate when professors ban digital devices in class when not used for an explicitly academic purpose. But I also appreciate when a professor uses a new medium for education that allows me to think critically in a way that the typical essay and paper could not. Learning how to convey information and convincing arguments via web-based media is a valuable lesson in critical thinking, and one that I wish more teachers would consider to supplement traditional teaching methods. I've taken these lessons from new media in the classroom into my extracurricular projects, and look forward to engaging with them more deeply in the near future after I graduate. We'll only lose from the increase of technology in the classroom if we don't critically consider and encourage the advantages we have to gain.

Jack R. said...

In his book 'Brain Rules' developmental molecular biologist and research consult Dr. John Medina states and substantiates: The Brain cannot multitask.

He also notes 'Throw Out Your Powerpoint'.

The book is about learning, memory, et cetera. Useful for any teacher / presenter. You can find more at