Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Kids Are All Right, But Is Technology Messing with Their Ability to Learn?

When I saw this image online at, a place I visit regularly, I felt like I was still standing in front of one of my classes. Not all of the students are like this, but enough to make it unsettling and disruptive.
Parents Urged Again to Limit TV for Youngest

First of all: the iPhones. It seems students can't help themselves. And why not? Studies show that  the cumulative hits of dopamine people receive from checking their iPhones produce feelings similar to love. There was an opinion piece in the NYTimes (I read it online), entitled, "You Love Your iPhone. 
Literally."  (Fortunately, I also read the paper version a few days later and came across a letter to the editor refuting that study, signed by 60 (count 'em!) neuropsychologists.)  So maybe it isn't love, per se, but it is hard to resist.
Second of all: the passive watchers. I will not bother to call them "learners." Look at this kid in pink. She represents the students who stare numbly at my PowerPoint presentations in ELL and are so difficult to move to action when the "exercise" frame comes on. It's not like I am asking them to get out of their chairs (but what if I were?). I told the students the other day: Get out your books and a notebook and take notes! Some hadn't even brought pencils/pens.

We talked about it: What followed was a discussion about how to be engaged while learning. I said, just staring at the PowerPoint is not helping you learn. Taking notes, writing your own words, and asking questions until I (or another student) explains it in a way you understand is helping you learn. Again not all  the students do this, but enough to make you want to scrap the PowerPoints altogether.
This image was in Sunday's NY Times, attached to an article by my favorite what's-technology-doing-to-us-as-learners-and-to-our-brains investigative reporter, Matt Richtel: A school in Silicon Valley that eschews all technology. Executives from eBay, Google, Apple, Yahoo, and Hewlett-Packard send their kids there! What do they know?

Third of all: The under-underprepared. A majority of my students this semester are right out of high school. Several have never read a book. Seriously. They do not know how to make use of (i.e., not just read, but go back and forth to understand concepts, take notes, etc.) our textbook. One student explained to me that she never had homework in high school. Ever. And she had no problem passing. She understands now that college is different, but she's having a difficult time with the transition. Her friends feel abandoned, and the trade-off of doing a lot of work for not such great grades (at first) is hard to prefer over a good night out with your buds. From that perspective, I have nothing but respect and admiration for her; her open-mindedness in recognizing the game change in her life; and for making this effort to exercise a muscle no one ever challenged her to strengthen before.

Fourth of all: The kids are all right. But is sticking them in front of computers in a computer lab the best thing to do for them when they first come to LaGuardia? Am I of a different mindset now? I feel like one of those "old" people who scoff with disgust as people bounce off their iPhones or as students switch computer screens faster than you can say, "It's an epidemic!" (And it's not limited to students: Of course we see people at committee meetings doing the same thing all the time.) Cathy Davidson published a very optimistic book this summer called, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. In it she extolls the benefits of multitasking, collaborative multitasking, innovative mind wandering, etc. and doesn't worry about the dangers of attention deficits. I read this as I was planning my courses! Ha! (This is too brief to do her book justice. Sorry.) I love this stuff. But I find that, anecdotally speaking, sticking kids in front of a computer when they haven't been used to reading and writing critically, is doing them, possibly a disservice.

What do you think? I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but...

This was posted on Facebook by a friend who is a textbook publisher; she found this hanging on a professor's office door.


  1. You are 60% on your way to an article.

    I think we need to try and "reclaim" (or "mine" . . . a better verb needed) the skills that our students are already being trained for by consumer culture. Re-source? Re-purpose?

    Maybe we can re-purpose texting? Texting is a grammar, right?

  2. I guess the article struck a nerve with our little community.

  3. I feel that our own OS has been changed for ever, and we have to strive to continue to learn how our students learn...despite making me feel old and uncool!

  4. On Course is a student sucess text used at many colleges. It is designed for faculty from all disciplines to promote the use of activities that support student centered learning. The website includes an excellent site in which faculty post activities they created and want to share. Below is a link for how some faculty successfully deal with the cell phone/texting issue.

  5. I'm a bit torn about technology myself. Perhaps we can be Aristotelian about it - nothing is good in excess, and deficiency is also destructive. There is a good way to use handheld devices even in class, but texting with friends is not one of the good uses.