Enabling or disabling youth?
Special to the
September 11, 2006
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
"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."
© 2006, Chicago Tribune