Sunday 30 October 2011

Saving Us From Ourselves

When I see the vast majority of digital natives (something I've raged against previously) attempt to make constructive use of a computer in class, they are constantly sideswiped by how little they know.  Watching my students struggle with their own urge to pointlessness in a blended learning career studies pilot last year was very enlightening.  If you hand them a computer, for the vast majority, the first thing they do is open Facebook, no matter what the reason for working on the computer was, it's like a digital tether, 90% of their digital self is stored in that one place (the other 10 is on youtube).  College humor hits the digital natives where they live with this.

When a student whose primary relationship with computers is one of entertainment, they have great difficulty thinking of it as anything other than a gaming console for asinine videos and Facebook.

One of Carr's angles in The Shallows is the loss of deep reading in a digital format.  Our memories can very efficiently manage the linear data stream we generate when we read deeply, but not if we're continuously interrupted (by links, navbars, hypertext, incoming social media etc).  Interrupted reading (or any kind of interrupted focused attention) results in substantially lower understanding and retention.  This isn't an opinion, it's a fact of our biology.

The 'wild' (read: increasingly monetized and corporately directed) internet caters to this.  Google thrives on page views and the internet thrives on Google, so the medium has continually evolved into a distraction engine that encourages disrupted thinking and rapid, trivial surfing of web pages.  This isn't the fault of digital technology, it's the fault of human beings intent on squeezing wealth from it.

The technology itself could as easily be adapted to protect its users and encourage and engage a focused mind.  Off the top of my head, THIS would be a good start.  We could as easily create deep research apps and other digital tools that encourage and reward focused attention online (we do all the time, they're games).  The feedback loops I recently read about in WIRED would serve this well.  People wouldn't be so reckless on the web if their recklessness was quantified.

One of the ways we try to deal with this as educators is to validate fractured thinking.  We start to think that skills like multi-tasking should be assessed and graded.  Multi-tasking isn't a skill, it's a series of single tasks we do in a much less effective way.  Rather than encouraging it, we should be angling students toward short term intense focus if they have to deal with multiple tasks.  A quote from M*A*S*H has always stayed with me.  "I do one thing at a time, I do it very well and then I move on."  It's from Charles who won't adopt a meatball surgery approach to his work, he won't be rushed into doing many things poorly.

If we're going to be technologically inspired and effective educators (and I desperately think that all teachers must be), then we need to train a very clear eye on what the internet does and how it (dangerously) simplifies our thinking.

In the meantime, herds of edtech educators get giddy about a new app with many flashing buttons on it.