Is Technology Helping or Hurting Education?

New studies show that teachers feel that media and technology are creating students with worse attention spans and less perseverance.

At age 4, my little girl and a friend played on the beach until exhaustion began to etch away at their good moods. When they began to tousle, I offered a story as a pleasant distraction before we packed up. My child, very used to the pleasures of a good story, immediately went still to focus on my tale. The other girl tried to do the same, but soon began to fidget away until I knew I’d lost her.

This kind of distraction wasn’t really something that happened in my household, but I’d seen it before with other young children my daughter knew. A common theme was that those kids watched a good deal of TV and played with computers (added together it’s called “screen-time”), while my kids and some of their other friends didn’t. Based on this purely anecdotal and possibly biased information, I had my suspicions.

I wondered if my stories of knights and fairies couldn’t compete with the flashing colors and fast edits of children’s media. I began to write about the idea that perhaps we were over-entertaining our kids. The effects of this, I imagined, would be children with ever-decreasing attention spans and perseverance: a nation of ADD, immediate-gratification-obsessed young adults. In fact, as a part-time college teacher, I’d seen the shift for myself in my incoming students. More and more they seemed to need short bite-sized pieces of highly entertaining visual display, at the same time, they were less and less willing to stay focused and come up with answers that might be hard to solve.

Not good.

Now my suspicions have been examined among teachers in two new research projects, as reported by The New York Times. According to the Times, the studies show that, “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.” One study was conducted by the Pew Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center that focuses on technology-related research. The other is from a San Francisco non-profit that advises parents about media issues, called Common Sense Media. According to their Vicky Rideout, media use among children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 has grown so fast that they on average spend twice as much time with screens each year as they spend in school.

It’s important to remember that these findings show the subjective opinions of teachers, rather than the hard data that would come from studying the kids themselves. But as a preliminary finding on the subject, I have to say I’d take the teachers word for it.

In the Times, Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at Pew, admits the studies’ results could alternately show “that the education system must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn, a point that some teachers brought up in focus groups themselves.” But young and old, the nearly 90 percent of the teachers said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

I’m willing to consider that we grown-ups can often be the last to change with the times. If there’s a good way to educate a generation raised on so much media, then I’m all for it. But what about the other finding, the one that has to do with perseverance? This is what the teachers in the interviews called the “Wikipedia problem.” I’ve seen it too: If students can’t get an answer almost instantly, they assume it’s a lost cause. To this teacher, that kind of tenacious work ethic seems severely in decline. In fact, even if I tell them to base a presentation on the text and not Wikipedia, I continually get the same definitions right from the web, most of which are frustratingly inaccurate for the course I’m teaching (Visual Language and Culture).

Movies like “Race to Nowhere” have addressed some of these same issues while pointing to slightly different causes. That film blames the increase in route testing and incredible rise of busy-work homework, which rob kids of critical thinking skills. I’m sure others who’ve noticed the trends in our youngest generations may have different theories. I can’t pretend to know the answers. But I’ve seen the same changes these thinkers point to and I’m glad to see they’re being examined.

As a parent, I can say that our kids still seem to me just as bright, energetic and ready to learn as any I’ve known in all my years in childcare and education—and it’s for this reason, if nothing else, that we have to do right by them and help them grow as the world speeds around them at an ever-increasing pace.

tiny November 13, 2012 at 01:50 AM
So history contd: www.cprr.org/Museum/Centennial_Exhibition_1876 the centennial expo in Phili was a showcase of Am Sys industrial and technological power including the new steam locomotive engine. And countries like Germany, Russian and Japan set up deals for these American exports to build rail in their own countries and to open up their interiors to development and between countries. But the Mistress of the Seas where the sun never set realized this would break their control of trade by the seas and so they started organizing things to block this progress, which eventually led into WWI, then II cont. And we changed from our system to Adam Smith by way of assasinations, (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley from 1865 to 1901), and in my view, mass immigration of mainly non-English speakers after the Civil War, which caused many to reidentify with the English system that we were founded in oppoisition to, because the other identity was a mass of poor immigrants. Now history has written out the inconvenient parts where economists have not even heard of the American System. Long range thinking and planning has the upper hand.
Gabrielle Block November 13, 2012 at 01:50 AM
I think it depends. "Special needs kids" covers a lot of very diverse ground. Some kids with physical disabilities may not lack the coordination or strength in their hands to write, but still be able to learn to use a keyboard of some kind. I think it makes sense for kids (special needs or otherwise) to learn both writing and keyboard skills whenever the abilities of the child make that feasible.
Gabrielle Block November 13, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Whoops! The second sentence of my reply should be "...may lack the coordination..."
Gabrielle Block November 13, 2012 at 03:41 AM
I agree with met00. There are many ways that technology, including computer/internet technology, can be used to enhance learning and the educational experience. That doesn't mean that it can totally replace an in-person instructor or the "live" classroom experience.
Papa Pete November 13, 2012 at 10:51 PM
It is a good question, fair but tough to answer. I see it as having two parts. Part one, the technology as a tool is great. Part two, the technology infrastructure that is needed for part one is a black hole, or a money pit. I've seen schools wired with copper wiring, then a decision is made to go wireless. Sometimes there were no additional student computers provided with these upgrades, they were just trying to keep up with an arbitrary Master Technology Plan approved by the district. Free Apple computers years ago have been replaced at great expense, mostly with PC's, and now iPads. Old classrooms were not configured for the electrical distribution that was required with technology (computers, printers, scanners, smart boards, large screen monitors, teacher refrigerators and coffee pots and microwaves and stereos). It costs a lot of money to bring in additional power/switchboards and to distribute this power to classrooms. When the classrooms are a group of remote portable buildings, it is even more expensive. Spending bond money for technology is a bad idea because bonds usually are based on taxes being collected for 30 years. You can't do this with hardware and software that needs to be upgraded every few years.


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