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Technology’s Impact Evident but Imponderable

November 1, 2012

An article in today’s NYTimes titled “Technology is Changing the Way Students Learn, Teachers Say” reports on two recently released independent surveys that reached similar conclusions: “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”.

The article emphasized that the surveys, while done scientifically, do not constitute proof that technology HAS resulted in the changes teachers perceive, but IS evidence that teachers have a sense that students are more and more difficult to engage in the classroom and increasingly expecting fast answers to questions.

As a recently hatched blogger, I can see how this is the case. When I started this blog about a year ago I asked some friends and my children and sons-in-law for feedback. I originally wanted to mimic the Naked Capitalism blog that has a wealth of links and occasional in-depth posts by Yves Smith, the blog’s “overseer”. Some of my contemporaries suggested I drop the links and focus on infrequent in-depth analyses of issues… but the Gen X-ers thought I should issue pithier and more frequent posts like Paul Krugman or, as I’ve come to appreciate, Diane Ravitch.  I’ve come down on the side of the Gen-X-ers…. but now we’re down to tweeting whereby bloggers entice prospective readers to their pithy blog sites through catchy tweets… Given this devolution to ever shorter messaging is it any wonder that students are distracted? 

I am finding that there is a different skill set required for tweeting, blogging, and writing essays. Whether one form is superior to another is debatable. This section of the article brings that point to light:

Scholars who study the role of media in society say no long-term studies have been done that adequately show how and if student attention span has changed because of the use of digital technology. But there is mounting indirect evidence that constant use of technology can affect behavior, particularly in developing brains, because of heavy stimulation and rapid shifts in attention.

Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at Pew, acknowledged that the findings could be viewed from another perspective: that the education system must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn, a point that some teachers brought up in focus groups themselves.

“What we’re labeling as ‘distraction,’ some see as a failure of adults to see how these kids process information,” Ms. Purcell said. “They’re not saying distraction is good but that the label of ‘distraction’ is a judgment of this generation.”

The days of digging through bound books to find definitions, or listings of magazine articles, or encyclopedia data are over and they are not coming back… students have access to information in a matter of seconds that used to take hours to get. Articles like this reinforce the notion that we not only have to change the way lessons are presented, we need to change our definition of “learning” and the way we organize schools.

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