The Promise and Perils of Technology in Education

anonymous surfing

I have been thinking about this concept for a long time. Does technology really enhance the learning process? So many in technology believe it does, or will at least if used correctly (which seems to be a frequency problem because “correctly” in this context always seems to mean more often). But I am unsure. I am not a technologist, but an educator and don’t get me wrong….I love technology and I love to use it in the classroom to better engage my students. But here is what I am discovering by doing this…better engagement does not necessarily equal better learning. I think the odds are greater that some learning will happen when one is more highly engaged, but I haven’t seen any evidence that the use of technology in any classroom actually enhances the learning process.

I have seen recent evidence that students actually retain information better when they write their lecture notes instead of type them (http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/05/to-remember-a-lecture-better-take-notes-by-hand/361478/). It also appears that even digital natives prefer to read a paper book as opposed to an electronic copy because they clearly process information differently in print versus electronic (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/why-digital-natives-prefer-reading-in-print-yes-you-read-that-right/2015/02/22/8596ca86-b871-11e4-9423-f3d0a1ec335c_story.html).

Much of this has to do with how digital natives use the Internet and the formed habits around Internet use. These are just observations but these must play a role in technology use in the classroom, how it’s used and how often it is used.

First, my college students who are really just on the fringes of being digital natives, use the Internet much differently than their professors, just one generation removed. Most individuals aged 40+ tend to use the Internet as a great big library full of information that they can access and use in a constructive manner. We learned how to process information differently than the current digital generation. We searched and discovered using the Dewey Decimal System (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dewey_Decimal_Classification ) and we did not have quick answers to questions at our fingertips. We had to work to find answers to questions and hence will work to find the correct information using the vast array of resources now available to us on the Internet as well. We value that process of immersion in a subject matter. Now, is access to all of this information eroding our ability to critically evaluate information and patience for search and discovery? Well, I know it is mine and I cannot be alone in this. I see it happening. Really, you want me to read an eleven page article? Can’t I just skim the headline and get the idea? That’s coming from someone who recognizes what is happening to my own ability to process and critically evaluate information. My own impatience when it comes to accessing relevant and meaningful information and it is eroding, slowly.

Second, habitual behavior built around the use of those resources available to us at our fingertips. Again, those of us who are 40+ use the Internet primarily to access information. We are still enamored by the vast amount of information now available to us that wasn’t available at this level even 12 years ago. The digital natives however have been raised in the era of social media and quick answers to simple questions. This is how they primarily use the Internet: quick answers and socialization. The era of Google where if one had a question, you could quickly look up the answer. No search, no discovery, no work, no process. The era of Facebook and Twitter and now the 100’s of other social sites as well. The context in which digital natives use the Internet is completely different than the rest of us. They formed habits around this: quick, easy, and social. Surfing the web or social sites. No immersion in a subject or in depth thinking. No feeding curiosity past the first site that pops up on Google. These habits don’t change when they need to find relevant and meaningful information. Their ability to think and focus past the first few articles they find is problematic.

This is our fault. We have allowed this. We have created this. In the effort to make more information accessible, we have made it less valuable because we value that which we work for and put effort into. We raised a generation of learners who don’t know how to learn because they only live on the surface of the information and lack the necessary skills (and patience) to dive deep and immerse themselves to search for meaningful answers. The truth is, this is how we all live now. The abyss, the darkness, the unknown; this is where we must go to better understand. But can any of us anymore?