If technology is making us stupid, it's not technology’s fault

If technology is making us stupid, it's not technology’s fault Blog Image

There has been growing concern that computers have failed to live up to the promise of improving learning for school kids.  The New York Times, The Washington Post, and PBS have all done stories recently calling into question the benefits of computers in schools.  When computers fail kids, it’s too easy to blame the technology.  And it’s disingenuous simply to cast aspersions on the kids.  Those are responses that do little if anything to account for what is a much more layered set of conditions.  Computers don’t define how they are taken up socially, people do.  Guardians, or extended families more largely, are a key constituent in the conditions for productive, participatory learning engagements with technology.  But they are not the only players, by far.  Teachers, policymakers, even gaming corporations share responsibility to fashion the sort of robust, attractive learning ecologies, instruments, and products to maximize the vast potential computing technologies and the Internet hold for engaged and indeed lifelong learning experiences.

Recent empirical research has shown decreased reading and math skills for middle school children after adoption of computers at home and school. Media observers and political commentators have made much of these apparent trends. Nicholas Carr’s widely read book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains (rooted in his Atlantic article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"), and his blog posts at Rough Type have stressed the negative data in well-publicized empirical research by the likes of Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke University.

Blaming the computer and the Internet

In a five-year study of North Carolina middle school kids, Vigdor and Ladd found that  introduction of computers in homes led to children spending less time on homework and more time on recreational games, resulting in somewhat deflated reading and math skills as conventionally tested.  The effects were more acute for black youth than for white. In a New York Times op ed piece, David Brooks stressed a related finding from another study.  Schoolchildren who were sent home for the summer with 12 library books increased their reading capability and put the brakes on the traditional summer slide in reading skill.  Brooks links the summer reading findings to the Vigdor/Ladd results and Carr’s book, arguing that reading the classics cultivates respect and longstanding wisdom, while the Internet experience “smashes hierarchy,” undermining respect for longstanding values and deference to the “wisdom” of history and knowledge of “lasting import.”

The Duke researchers do acknowledge improved computing skills—the capacity to negotiate software and to find their way around the Internet—that are useful for future employability in the contemporary economy.  But these findings are overshadowed by the stress on what they identify as the computer related failings. And it is these failings that social critics are quick to take up.  While none link these findings and arguments to the pejorative dismissal of Mark Bauerlein’s purposely incendiary “dumbest generation,” their skepticism about the benefits of computer enabled learning reinforces the skepticism identified with vocal critics, skeptical politicians, and a reinforcing public distrustful of the new.

Playing to longstanding social fears

Vigdor and Ladd’s findings should hardly surprise us.  Computers and the Internet are no different than other socially transforming technologies like television and automobiles.  When television became socially widespread in the 1950s the concern was that it would undermine learning.  And that no doubt has been part of its effect, as the culture of the couch potato took hold of kids emulating adults.  But the stereotype of the empty-headed television generation overlooks the extraordinary impact television also had on learning from creative programs such as Sesame Street and the Discovery and History Channels.

Likewise, when the possibility of driving became a reality for teenagers it produced a profound cultural shift, prompting discussion among anxious parents and policymakers alike, not to mention considerable cultural commentary, about the impacts and effects of teenage access to a technology that wasn’t just potentially dangerous but educationally subversive.  Give the car keys to an unsupervised teenager and...there goes the neighborhood!  James Dean is so yesterday?

Unlike television, and perhaps more like automobiles, computers are far from passive consumptive technologies.  They enable, if not encourage, interactive engagement, creativity, and participatory interaction with others.  The interaction can assume various forms, not all productive.  Yet like the appealing impacts of both television and automobile access for youth, the productive and creative capacities of computing technology for ordinary users are staggering.  The question then is not the false dilemma between unqualified good and evil, but how best to enable the productive learning possibilities of new digital technologies.

Deconstructing false dilemmas

What the skeptical media commentators always seem to do is push for a single explanation for a multi-dimensional and multi-determined condition.  Stirring trouble creates readership, and a following.  But the underlying assumptions are misleading at best, pernicious at worst.  They seem to expect everyone to learn in the same way, subject to the same conditions, with the same resources.  One can only be cultivated by reading Shakespeare and the like.  British poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold was making this argument 130 years ago: this is the best that has been thought and taught—and one can add written and read.  So everyone needs to buckle down and do it.  All well to get the lesson of putting together a library, so long as my library is just like your library—and it better be on wooden shelves in a room with pages gathering dust.

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida was once asked on camera by a young person interviewing him amazed at his vast library whether he had read all those books (every professor has had a version of this question).  His response was delicious.  No, he said, I have read only four.  But I have read them very well.  The Internet makes available a vast array of reading materials, including books.  Poll any 100 pairs of American parents about what four they would have their own kids read well, and you are bound to get at least 150 responses.  Proliferate the number of parental source countries and you are unlikely to get universal consensus on any one book at all.

So there are things wrong with the premises, things wrong with generalizations, and things wrong with the assessment regimes promoted by the technology skeptics.  First, they presume not just that one model should or does fit all but that model presupposes at least a solidly middle class environment.  Not everyone is interested in Jane Austen, as good as she was.  The writing may be technically superb, but the world she writes about is just not that interesting to those not drawn in some way to emergent bourgeois romance.  Houston Baker has long argued that if you can’t make Shakespeare into a hip hopper no amount of insisting will make hip hoppers into Shakespeareans.  Purists may balk at the Maori cinematic Merchant of Venice or at the township film of Bizet’s  opera, U-Carmen eKayelitsha, but they bring to life iconic European cultural contributions for audiences well outside their range of reference, at once shifting the meaning and significance of those works for all of us.

Answers tend to depend on what a person’s looking for

Second, it remains an open question whether or how far reading skills have in fact deteriorated.  The answers will depend in part on where one looks.  There is emerging evidence that those youth who are, for whatever reason, reluctant to read in conventional school settings, including testing, are quite able readers when negotiating the Internet for personal or perceived social needs, like multi-player game interaction or gleaning information they deem relevant to their cultural needs and communication.  Extensive ethnographic research has revealed the complex ways “hanging out, messing around, and geeking out” translate into productive participatory learning experiences largely opaque to conventional learning advocates.

Environments for hanging out, messing around and geeking out have to include not just creative schools such as Quest2Learn, a New York City public school the curriculum for which is designed around gaming for pretty much all subjects.  They must incorporate into networks with creative schools, inviting after school programs, library spaces, museums and science centers, computer clubs, and yes, sitting rooms at home.

Books versus the Internet - why frame it this way?

Just as television has offered a range of viewing experiences, some terrifically productive for learning, so the Internet offers a huge array of reading possibilities, including online versions of many of the European classics.  David Brooks begrudgingly admits as much when he says that “Already, more ‘old-fashioned’ outposts are opening up across the Web. It could be that the real debate will not be books versus the Internet but how to build an Internet counterculture that will better attract people to serious learning.”  Why, but for the likes of Brooks, was the debate ever about books versus the Internet?  He and those for whom he writes need also to open up to different conceptions of what “serious learning” amounts to.  That, too, is part of what is at issue here, without the usual pejorative dismissal of “lowering standards.”  Learning what, and for what, when, and under what conditions - those are the questions.

This is not to deny concerns over diminishing scores, only to portray the concerns within a more varied and nuanced set of contexts.  Where scores have declined, does it have to do with the fact that wealth inequities have widened dramatically over the same period?  That perhaps the supposedly dumbest generation wallowing in the murky shallows is a product of teachers constantly forced to worry about almost nothing else than responses to standardized testing?  We know all too well that different kids learn in sometimes dramatically different ways, at different paces, in different temporalities of skill development, and so on.  If reading has become shallower, is it just because the Internet makes us read quicker or are there many other factors at work—that there is so much to read, so many more books and magazines, electronic media aside—that to get a sense of any good portion we have to skim; that life, and earning money to support a family, and even school, that going and getting about is so complex and time-consuming and quick-paced, that the time for leisurely reading is no longer so readily available?

But the premise here too may be wrong.  There are plenty of deep works that plenty of people, including youth, seem to be reading.  Harry Potter is to this generation what the Hardy Boys or Enid Blyton was to the British 1950s.  Freshlyground is the South African girl group playing back up to Shakira for the Waka Waka World Cup theme song.  In explaining the meaning of “The Big Man” on their own new cd, Radio Africa, recorded in New York, one of the group leaders made reference to Wizard of the Crow, the award winning novel by Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiongo, now teaching at the University of California, critical of the role of powerful male politicians in postcolonial Africa.  We simply live in different times.  It was never the case that everyone read everything, or all the same things, or had time to.

A call to action

Carr writes that the “The Net is making us smarter, in other words, only if we define intelligence by the Net’s own standards."  Well, perhaps he should apply that standard to his own argument, and Brooks to his: we are only better read, or cultivated, if we take as the criteria of assessment the ways of reading and being cultivated to which the likes of Carr and Brooks ascribe.  The criteria of assessment have a significant impact on who registers as well-read or cultivated on the scale.

The media mega-critics so ready to diss the learning legacy of the digital, it turns out, can themselves be selective in their citing of the central study from which they wish to draw their conclusions.  Vigdor and Ladd are more subtle in their prognosis than those so readily taking up their cause.  In a completely ignored passage, they caution that, “One interpretation of these findings is that home computer technology is put to more productive use in households with more effective parental monitoring, or in households where parents can serve as more effective instructors in the productive use of online resources. We find evidence consistent with this interpretation.”

The point is crucial, but should be generalized. Vigdor and Ladd are to be applauded for emphasizing that it is not the technology, but the social conditions of their use that are the most compelling concerns in play here.

Image(s) credit: Quest2Learn