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TECHNOLOGY
Enabling or Disabling Youth?
Chicago Tribune - September 11, 2006 - Chicago Tribune
by David Sharos
http://www.tribune.com

 

Technology: Enabling or disabling youth?


By David Sharos
Special to the Tribune
Published September 11, 2006

"Electronic gizmos make us stupid."

Those words, written and published 25 years ago by author Daniel S. Greenberg, seem almost heretical, given the ramped-up technological world of the 21st Century.

Today, most schools offer computer and Internet access to every student. And the availability of databases that span centuries, plus the nearly instant access to them all, would seem to suggest there's no stopping future generations in their quest for knowledge.

But those in the trenches of academia are finding that technology and all its promises is a two-edged sword, with cracks as well as solid footings appearing in the educational foundation.

While multitasking and project-oriented learning are on the rise, problems with basic skills, youth obesity and screen-gawking addiction are climbing right along with them.

"I sort of have mixed feelings about technology," said Jerry Mintz, director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization. "The key is about empowering kids. We like to use technology as a tool, not have kids all wrapped up in it as an escape."

Elizabeth Helsinger, a professor of English and former department chairman at the University of Chicago, also views technology as a mixed bag. While her students are adept at performing many tasks using the Internet, their computer skills often temper the quality of what they write.

"When students start a research paper, they often look for a quote from some article, which is usually taken out of context," Helsinger said. "By using the Web they are casting a much bigger net than if they just used the library, but, of course, the Internet doesn't edit what you're getting."

Helsinger also noted that she finds more errors in continuous logic in papers, due to the cutting and pasting of material, and that students often fail to revise their work after using a word processor.

"The problem with revision is using the tools you have available, but also students that don't understand the terminology," she said. "You can have Microsoft Word tell you you're using the `passive voice,' but students don't know what the concepts are."

Today, basic skills like adding and subtracting with pencil and paper are out the window. Students no longer diagram sentences. And they often "speak" in alternative languages used for instant or text messaging, or in what North Central College English professor Sara Eaton calls "movie clips."

"I don't blame technology for these `alternative languages' at all. The fact is, we've always had them," Eaton said. "I remember my parents telling me they didn't understand what I was talking about in high school. But whether technology is good or bad as far as learning goes, my feelings are I just don't know."

Eaton believes that technology has continued to affect the way the human brain thinks, stores and retrieves information.

"If you want to take the long view on this, once the printing press was developed and people could read, all of a sudden people didn't have to remember as much," she said. "Years ago, people could recall long passages of sermons because they were trained to remember. But today students think differently, and I find they are often afraid to think for themselves."

Research has begun to unearth some interesting cognitive, as well as physiological, effects linked to the technological world. Chris Mercogliano, director of the Free School in Albany, N.Y., is writing his fourth book, "In Defense of Childhood," and said too much time in front of monitors "is damaging kids' imaginations."

"Research has shown there is a center in the brain that is harmed by four, five, six hours of looking at TV or computer screens," Mercogliano said. "Kids learn by creating mental pictures in their own heads instead of technology creating it for them. There's an atrophication process going on, and technology is train-wrecking childhood."

Besides the effect on imagination, Mercogliano noted obesity in children has doubled in the past 10 years, with children suffering prematurely from adult diseases such as Type II diabetes. Many youngsters average4 1/2 hours a day in front of screens, leading to less physical activity.

Despite the ambivalence of some, many educators and technology users stand firmly in support of the new and faster ways to deliver and discover information. Mimsy Sadofsky, a staff member at the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Mass., credits technology for increasing students' ability to multitask and developing greater vocabulary skills.

"Kids are brighter and sharper today, and the things they can accomplish are mind-boggling," said Sadofsky, whose students at Sudbury are free from the shackles of an adult-imposed curriculum. "Kids here that can't spell better or do simple math don't really care. They're more interested in finding out about other things, and the technology makes that all possible. It's totally a plus."

While Eaton remains unsure which way the technology pendulum will swing, she admits it has improved her students' language skills in the study of Shakespeare.

"I teach a course called `Shakespeare in Movies,' and I find students are learning the language twice as fast by seeing films made by the BBC as opposed to when it was just textually based," she said.

It's also worth noting that the educational paradigm has shifted. Instructional-technology consultant David Warlick noted that for the first time we are preparing students for a future we can't totally envision, a position shared by Don Knezek, chief executive of the Washington, D.C.-based International Society for Technology in Education. To ignore technology, he argued, is to leave students in a severely disadvantaged position.

"The idea of this `abstinence' agenda scares me," Knezek said. "The facts are that everything from public opinion polls to entertainment is no longer text-based. A molecular chemist told me he spends 90 percent of his time dealing with virtual world content and then returns to his physical lab only 10 percent of the time.

"It's also true that technology makes learning more engaging for students. It's more challenging for teachers to use, but studies of students have shown that only one in five believes the current curriculum at his school is relevant."

Sharon Texley, a program associate working for Naperville's Learning Point Associates, a non-profit research and professional development group, said technology "will never replace good teaching skills," but we should "affirm the use of it" so students can develop skills they might not get at home.

"There are things like `drill and kill' software which just become an easy way to keep students occupied," Texley said. "But with things like research, you've got access to hypermedia, which offers far more than linear text print.

"There are two different groups today: digital immigrants, the older folks that got on board the last 15 years, and the digital natives, [whose] skills are going to be a lot more complex."

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune

 

 

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