Technology and Learning

As an educator, I am absolutely frightened when I read articles like these. Just the opening sentence chills me to the core. Observe:

There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers being released on Thursday.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is a belief held by majority of my peers. This is what educators believe right now. These are the people we are entrusting with shaping the impressionable minds of the nation’s youth. And they just don’t get it. They have no clue. The educators who participated in this study should not be teaching. They should be in some sort of reservation for old people and maladjusted Luddites. There are utterly unprepared to what is coming.

I exaggerate but don’t you think that hiring technologically illiterate educators to teach early and primary education courses could be considered developmentally harmful? In theory they are probably fully capable of doing their jobs and transferring the knowledge from their respective fields of expertise to their students. I’m sure they are responsible professionals who know their craft, and they might actually be good at their jobs. But at the same time, if they have weird hangups about technology, shouldn’t we be concerned they will infect the kids with them? And I use the word infect on purpose, because that’s what it is – technological illiteracy is a meme. It is a harmful, infectious learned attitude that gets instilled into kids at an early age and hampers their development.

Right now, in the year 2012 you can still hobble your way through life without knowing how to use a computer though it will seriously limit your options when it comes to finding a white collar, well paying job. Ten years from now, it will be tantamount to serious developmental disability.

Just to be clear, when I talk about knowing how to use a computer I am not talking about being able to turn it on, log into Facebook or edit word documents using rote, memorized motions. No, I’m talking about actually being able to own, operate and maintain a personal computing device at a power user level, without breaking, infecting it with malware or somehow misplacing or deleting important files on a daily basis.

Kids these days (at least suburban, middle class American kids) are in a unique situation. Unlike many previous generations, they were essentially born into a world of ubiquitous mobile technology. Many of the younger kids don’t even remember a world without hand-held computing devices. Every single one of them carries what amounts to a slightly less polished and less directed version of A Young Ladie’s Illustrated Primer (from Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age) in their packet. They have a live, unfiltered, real time connection to the entirety of human knowledge at their fingertips. But instead of being instructed on how to tap into that knowledge, how to use those devices to search, filter, evaluate and absorb new knowledge they are being told not to use such devices in class. They are told their phones and tablets are not good for anything other than distraction and gaming – some schools even go as far as banning use of electronics in class.

The worst part is that at some level most teachers do understand the value of the technology:

The surveys also found that many teachers said technology could be a useful educational tool. In the Pew survey, which was done in conjunction with the College Board and the National Writing Project, roughly 75 percent of 2,462 teachers surveyed said that the Internet and search engines had a “mostly positive” impact on student research skills. And they said such tools had made students more self-sufficient researchers.

But nearly 90 percent said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

In other words, the internet would be totally sweet if it wasn’t for all them darn Facebooks and Youtubes, video games and what not. I don’t understand it so therefore it must be bad. It is a classic closed minded attitude which should not have place in education, but alas, here we are.

Granted, some observations in the article are somewhat valid:

In interviews, teachers described what might be called a “Wikipedia problem,” in which students have grown so accustomed to getting quick answers with a few keystrokes that they are more likely to give up when an easy answer eludes them. The Pew research found that 76 percent of teachers believed students had been conditioned by the Internet to find quick answers.

They need skills that are different than ‘Spit, spit, there’s the answer,’ ” said Lisa Baldwin, 48, a high school teacher in Great Barrington, Mass., who said students’ ability to focus and fight through academic challenges was suffering an “exponential decline.” She said she saw the decline most sharply in students whose parents allowed unfettered access to television, phones, iPads and video games.

I mentioned this before – I don’t think the “lookup reflex” is a bad thing in itself. It is the lack of follow-through that is worrisome here. This is what we call “the whiz kid problem”. Sometimes you have a brilliant pupil in your classroom who can intellectually run laps around all the other students. They can immediately intuit problems other students can barely wrap their heads around, they can absorb knowledge via osmosis and coast through your courses almost without any effort. Then one day you give them a problem that is actually just beyond their grasp. Something they could work out, but not without some effort. And they immediately shut down. They fold, and give up at the slightest sign of pressure. This is hard, and therefore I won’t even attempt it as not to embarrass myself. If you don’t push them through this threshold, and force them to tackle this obstacle they may never fly free again.

Nowadays all kids have a digital exo-cortex that can provide easy answers to complex questions in real time. They learn to treat the internet as an integral part of their brain. They learn to rely on it, and probably take some pride in their Google-Fu information retrieval skills. But then when they hit that one problem that can’t be easily looked up, they hit the same cognitive hump as the smart kid. But this time this is a generational problem, not an individual one. The trick is to get them past that hump. To lead them from “let me look it up” to “let me work it out based on what I looked up”. It is about data inference, assessment, evaluation and extrapolation from known data. We as educators have to show them how to do it.

What worries me is that Lisa Baldwin, 48, does not seem to realize that this is part of her job. Yes, kids do not know how to extrapolate, abstract and solve “thinking problems”. But where does she expect them to pick up these skills if not in school?

I wish we could blame everything on parents, but that’s sort of a lost battle. The truth is that most parents are pretty terrible at actually educating their children. Just about anyone can become a parent – there are no prerequisites, no test and no certification exams. You don’t need a diploma or a letter of recommendation. Most teachers on the other hand have either formal education, or at the very least a few years of experience in forcibly smuggling knowledge into unwilling resentful minds of children. We are in a much better position to get these kids the necessary skills they need than the folks who birthed them into the world.

Sometimes I think that traditional modes of education might be getting obsolete. Perhaps the human element involved in the education is doing more harm than good. People like Lisa Baldwin, 48, might actually be injuring young impressionable minds by tampering with their ability to properly interface with the technology that is bound to continue being more and more integrated into their daily lives.

On the other hand, give a child an interactive device preloaded with age appropriate educational materials, and no instruction on how to use it and observe what happens. Usually you will see something akin to piranha feeding frenzy – a uncontrollable knowledge binge. There is a great, heart warming story the founders of the OLPC projects are fond of telling about illiterate Ethiopian children who learned how to hack Android on their own:

Earlier this year, OLPC workers dropped off closed boxes containing the tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.”

Elaborating later on Negroponte’s hacking comment, Ed McNierney, OLPC’s chief technology officer, said that the kids had gotten around OLPC’s effort to freeze desktop settings. “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that,” McNierney said. “And the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning. If they can learn to read, then they can read to learn.”

When I first read that last sentence it absolutely blew my mind. Not because it is so deliciously succinct a cleverly formulated. Because it rings so true. I feel that everything I have ever learned in my life was the stuff I wanted to learn. Things that did not interest me, or I did not enjoy learning about were memorized for just long enough for me to pass the test, and then dumped into the void (usually much to my regret when I realized I actually needed this knowledge and had to re-absorb it again at a later time).

If they can learn to read, then they can read to learn.

I’m not saying we as educators are becoming obsolete. I simply thing our role is changing. We are no longer in business of simply transferring knowledge. Machines can actually do that much better than we do. Machines can be consistently entertaining, and provide enough incentives and challenges to keep the children’s short attention spans than we usually can. Kids have a voracious appetite for knowledge – you give them a good source and they will devour it lock stock and barrel on their own. What should we be doing then? We should be providing guidance and direction. We should be in the business of supplying children with crucial research and evaluation skills. We should be teaching them how to teach themselves and gently pushing them in the right directions. We should be motivating them to research and learn things that may not be terribly interesting or glamorous but is nevertheless necessary to understand.

This is like a perverted version of the Socratic method adopted for the digital era. The knowledge is out there, let me give you some hints on how to find it. This crucial element of discovery and experimentation is what is very often missing from our classrooms. This is why a lot of kids fall in love with programming – because when you write code, it is ok to make mistakes, get things wrong, and keep trying until you get things right. When you code you are in a constant feedback loop – you always know where you are in the problem, and how badly you are messing up. But there is no penalty for failing – you can only succeed or give up.

That’s how it has to be. I can’t teach you to program – you have to learn it yourself. I can show you the concepts and the theory, but you won’t really grasp it until you actually do it. Until you actually apply these concepts in practice. And in one evening of programming you are likely to learn more about the language, it’s design and it’s ugly warts and problems than I could possibly cover in a dozen lectures.

So, educators – don’t dismiss technology. It’s the future. It can actually insert knowledge into the heads of students faster and more efficiently than you can. Use this to your advantage. Exploit it. Instead of fighting it, teach our students to use it. Teach them to teach themselves. Let them fail, experiment and mess up. Don’t let your personal hangups injure their impressionable minds. The fact you do not understand, or are fearful of technology does not give you a right to handicap your students by discouraging technology use.

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5 Responses to Technology and Learning

  1. This is a very interesting post. I have a bunch of thoughts on the matter and I’ll get around to organizing someday, but I want to record some of them here. I do believe that we are facing a challenge with regards to technology and education. I agree that by and large teachers (even new, young teachers) are hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the changes in the air. Personally, I think one answer could be transitioning to a more personalized system of education: the teacher suggests a lesson plan and resources to look up and points you in the right direction. There are a small number of introductory lectures to start things off and then the students are left to their own devices with some guidance. They can explore on their own, learn and do to their hearts’ content with a teacher acting as a guide and applying gentle pressure to push the students in the right direction.

    Of course this means that teachers will have to be familiar with a wide breadth of the material and that this will demonstrate even greater variance in students’ abilities. Perhaps the hardest institutional problem will be to abandon standardized testing (for the most part) and move to more of a portfolio/recommendation based system.

    Technology will enable us to create a system of personalized that can unlock human potential like never before, but we need people who are able and willing to guide that unlocking. And I think we are sorely missing that.

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  2. The anti-technology attitudes will die off naturally as older teachers are replaced with youngers ones — who themselves will eventually hold a different set of stale beliefs. It’s just the current version of, “Kids these days …”.

    On the other hand, I can reach some agreement with them, but for completely different reasons. For example, purchasing individual iPads for an entire kindergarten class. That seems like a really poor use of limited education funding. While technology certainly enhances education, it’s not necessarily always cost effective.

    Also, as you said yourself, portable devices (tablets, smart phones) tend to be poor for producing things. They’re most useful for consumption. A good education should involve plenty of both, especially those future engineers and programmers who should be tinkering with these devices.

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  3. alphast GREECE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Brilliant post. I have myself to fight that very attitude on a daily basis, being (happily) married to a juvenile probation officer. My wife, although quite computer literate herself, comparing with her colleagues, his absolutely convinced that Facebook, the Internet and video games are harmful for kids at any dose above 1/2 hour per day. But I am fighting a losing battle, because there is an entire corpus of government approved pseudo-scientific studies about internet addiction, links to criminality and so on. Based on these assumptions, massive programs such as the EU – Safer Internet policy are trying to prevent kids to stay online too long, to play video games, etc. OK, to be fair, these programs and these efforts are fortunately very inefficient and their results limited. Nevertheless, they are harming kids every day, of course in the name of child protection.

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  4. MacHala CZECH REPUBLIC Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I tend to disagree with some points…
    Short attention span problem is imho obvious, many my peers (20-25) are checking facebook constantly on their phones(and when not checking it themselves, they get notifications), which is problem when trying to concentrate on complex problems

    As for me personally, I grew to really hate memorizing anything thanks to electronic sources, which now seriously harms my performance in exams where we’re allowed to use only our brains and pens. (in some exams we’re allowed to use paper notes, but phones/tablets are never allowed because of obvious cheating capabilities)… And although exams are artificially created problem with very limited real-world link it’s still very real problem, which, at least for now, justifies avoiding reliance on technology…

    Still, I’d love to see elearning etc more widespread and flexible

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  5. Janek Warchoł Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    I think there are two separate issues here.

    First one is learning how to use technology for research etc. Here i agree with Luke: there are many ways to use technology for our advantage, and it is increasingly important that our educational system knows how to do this. Unfortunately it seems that most of the teachers are not open-minded enough here.

    Second thing is the impact of widespread access to technology, *and* to ever-more-intense media on children. I think that the situation here is not as bright as Luke would want it to be, and that “exposure to technology” poses real risks for children. I don’t think that granting them unrestricted access to technology would be good.

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