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Is Technology Helping or Hurting Education?

New studies show that teachers feel that media and technology are creating students with worse attention spans and less perseverance.

At age 4, my little girl and a friend played on the beach until exhaustion began to etch away at their good moods. When they began to tousle, I offered a story as a pleasant distraction before we packed up. My child, very used to the pleasures of a good story, immediately went still to focus on my tale. The other girl tried to do the same, but soon began to fidget away until I knew I’d lost her.

This kind of distraction wasn’t really something that happened in my household, but I’d seen it before with other young children my daughter knew. A common theme was that those kids watched a good deal of TV and played with computers (added together it’s called “screen-time”), while my kids and some of their other friends didn’t. Based on this purely anecdotal and possibly biased information, I had my suspicions.

I wondered if my stories of knights and fairies couldn’t compete with the flashing colors and fast edits of children’s media. I began to write about the idea that perhaps we were over-entertaining our kids. The effects of this, I imagined, would be children with ever-decreasing attention spans and perseverance: a nation of ADD, immediate-gratification-obsessed young adults. In fact, as a part-time college teacher, I’d seen the shift for myself in my incoming students. More and more they seemed to need short bite-sized pieces of highly entertaining visual display, at the same time, they were less and less willing to stay focused and come up with answers that might be hard to solve.

Not good.

Now my suspicions have been examined among teachers in two new research projects, as reported by The New York Times. According to the Times, the studies show that, “There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks.” One study was conducted by the Pew Internet Project, a division of the Pew Research Center that focuses on technology-related research. The other is from a San Francisco non-profit that advises parents about media issues, called Common Sense Media. According to their Vicky Rideout, media use among children and teenagers ages 8 to 18 has grown so fast that they on average spend twice as much time with screens each year as they spend in school.

It’s important to remember that these findings show the subjective opinions of teachers, rather than the hard data that would come from studying the kids themselves. But as a preliminary finding on the subject, I have to say I’d take the teachers word for it.

In the Times, Kristen Purcell, the associate director for research at Pew, admits the studies’ results could alternately show “that the education system must adjust to better accommodate the way students learn, a point that some teachers brought up in focus groups themselves.” But young and old, the nearly 90 percent of the teachers said that digital technologies were creating “an easily distracted generation with short attention spans.”

I’m willing to consider that we grown-ups can often be the last to change with the times. If there’s a good way to educate a generation raised on so much media, then I’m all for it. But what about the other finding, the one that has to do with perseverance? This is what the teachers in the interviews called the “Wikipedia problem.” I’ve seen it too: If students can’t get an answer almost instantly, they assume it’s a lost cause. To this teacher, that kind of tenacious work ethic seems severely in decline. In fact, even if I tell them to base a presentation on the text and not Wikipedia, I continually get the same definitions right from the web, most of which are frustratingly inaccurate for the course I’m teaching (Visual Language and Culture).

Movies like “Race to Nowhere” have addressed some of these same issues while pointing to slightly different causes. That film blames the increase in route testing and incredible rise of busy-work homework, which rob kids of critical thinking skills. I’m sure others who’ve noticed the trends in our youngest generations may have different theories. I can’t pretend to know the answers. But I’ve seen the same changes these thinkers point to and I’m glad to see they’re being examined.

As a parent, I can say that our kids still seem to me just as bright, energetic and ready to learn as any I’ve known in all my years in childcare and education—and it’s for this reason, if nothing else, that we have to do right by them and help them grow as the world speeds around them at an ever-increasing pace.

randy November 11, 2012 at 07:38 PM
Abe Lincoln is the best example. Out of a lonely cabin with no TV or electric. He was a brilliant leader and educator. He walked to the school and libary daily. He read, wrote & articulated. Beautiful mind. No technology (batteries) necessary. Human interaction will posture.
Shripathi Kamath November 11, 2012 at 08:23 PM
Technology is an aid. If it is not helping, you are using it incorrectly. I remember using, nay memorizing log tables to do large scale multiplication, and when the first wave of electronic calculators arrived, the complaint was that it would spoil people for "basic math" The example of Abe Lincoln above is self-serving. Imagine how much more he could have done had he not have to walk to school or a library and could have read it on his Kindle? If Wikipedia spoils kids from thinking because they "just look it up,", well stretch the boundaries, give them something that they cannot look it up. Asking someone to figure out what the Civil War was about might be too easy a question. Perhaps the question should be something like "How did we evolve as a nation to shun treating people to be chattel to (mostly) being shocked at the thought, and what did the Civil War do to help change that perception?" If you use the calculator to evaluate √127612.123 and bemoan that one never learns how to use the paper and pencil method of doing that, then yes, technology has not helped. But then, why would you solve that particular math problem differently? I'd rather carry an iPod than a boombox with a deck of tapes.
Alberto Barrera November 11, 2012 at 09:55 PM
I agree with Shripathi. Technology is an aid, but in an academic setting, its usefulness is inhibited by school filters. For example, Khan Academy is an excellent source of technology based learning, but since it's entirely on Youtube, you can't access it from school.
Charles November 11, 2012 at 10:07 PM
It may be true that people are engaging in more screen time and that may lead to shorter attention spans. Have we concluded shorter attention spans are a bad thing? Maybe shorter attention spans are a good thing. Or, if they are a bad thing, maybe attention spans are only 1% shorter - but more screen time provides other cognitive benefits, making it a worthwhile trade off. Also, The "Wikipedia effect" and concluding an information search is a lost cause simply means it isn't worth pursing any further. The searcher conducted a trade off. Thirty years ago, he wouldn't even considered pursuing that information. Working hard isn't necessarily a virtue - solving the problem is. If technology provides an easier way to solve the problem faster, then that is a good thing.
Desi Kiss November 11, 2012 at 11:19 PM
Times have changed and technology if used properly may be an aide. However if input/output from such devices is not accurate nor reliable then you may use your imagination to what can happen. There is an article in OCR http://www.ocregister.com/news/science-377306-students-math.html that underscores the low level of science and math education in the USA. Wondering if it is related to the screen-time at home? We dropped from # 25 to # 31 in the World in math and we are # 23 in science. It is simply a failure to emphasize core academic subjects on a systematic level that allows foreign nations to surpass the U.S. academically. It is sad that only a few OC schools and educators are leading efforts to boost the STEM programs. We need a major systematic change if we expect to continue as global leaders. Top notch cutting-edge online Universities as well as improving the existing College and University STEM programs should be a step in the right direction. It is unfortunate that for the time it appears that for math, science and engineering there is a low priority in the U.S.
tiny November 12, 2012 at 12:44 AM
"The example of Abe Lincoln above is self-serving. Imagine how much more he could have done had he not have to walk to school or a library and could have read it on his Kindle?" What a stupid thought that is. Being smart isn't knowing all the facts that you easily get from the internet and the iphone, but knowing how things are related, how they come into being and if they correspond to reality, which you learn by recreating discoveries from the past for example. Look around, facts everywhere with all the technology. But what is happening to the overall culture.
tiny November 12, 2012 at 01:09 AM
Kids want to know why, why why. You're right about the technology being just a tool, but what's most impt. is learning how things come into being - the creative processes, not all the multitude of created things to infinity. It's the difference between Plato vs Aristotle/Bertrand Russell, or Sherlock Holmes vs Edgar Allen Poe.
Shripathi Kamath November 12, 2012 at 01:15 AM
'The example of Abe Lincoln above is self-serving. Imagine how much more he could have done had he not have to walk to school or a library and could have read it on his Kindle?' "What a stupid thought that is. Being smart isn't knowing all the facts that you easily get from the internet and the iphone, but knowing how things are related, how they come into being and if they correspond to reality, which you learn by recreating discoveries from the past for example." Because if you can do the same things faster (and cheaper), by eliminating travel, that is stupidity. No, no, please keep digging, tiny, you'll get yourself out of the hole.
tiny November 12, 2012 at 01:43 AM
You're in fantasy land, or delusional.
tiny November 12, 2012 at 01:56 AM
You're like that Watts donor thinking the economy is on the upswing because all the kids have an i-phone. Status quo doom.
Gabrielle Block November 12, 2012 at 02:08 AM
The only thing that this piece really shows is that kids can be frustrating sometimes, and when there are hitches in the teaching/learning process, it is easy to search for a scapegoat (in this case, technology). Nothing in the piece actually shows that kids nowadays are more likely to have learning problems. Years ago, kids would write reports by copying or paraphrasing from an encyclopedia or other book - now they use Wikipedia. Surprise, surprise! Digging for answers and synthesizing information from multiple sources are skills that need to be taught. They are not automatically acquired or appreciated by most students. As time goes by, internet technology will continue to contribute more to education. In particular, information resources will more often be found online, rather than through hard-copy print resources. Discussion boards and email will play an increasing role, as well as more specialized resources. Also, online courses provides learning to those who would not otherwise have the opportunity to take the courses. However, I doubt that there is such a thing as a top-notch online university, and I'm not sure that it is possible to have a top-notch university in which classes are held exclusively online. There are many examples of classes that cannot be done well online (lab, foreign language conversation, arts), and when students have difficulty with skills like writing or math, they often are helped best when working with someone in person.
tiny November 12, 2012 at 02:32 AM
The problem is these suck-ups to the global "elite" aren't even aware of it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=03YUgHAshSo&feature=related
bbq November 12, 2012 at 03:06 AM
There's always skype!
Dan Avery November 12, 2012 at 06:16 AM
Actually, tiny, "being smart" is knowing that any one with a modem and a six pack of beer can "edit" Wikipedia. Most people don't know that so they think it's a "viable source." It isn't. But you have to be educated to understand the difference. The example of Lincoln is self-serving for at least a half a dozen reasons. Abe didn't walk to school. He rode a horse, which was his era's version of busing. Technology in Abe's day, the buggy, was a huge boom. It's always been an aide. By the way there are damn few viable sources on the internet. They are the same sources as always....i.e., peer-review journals like the New England Journal of Medicine... Gabrielle Block is correct in that there is no such thing as a top-notch university online because something happens in the classroom that is akin to magic that you can't replicate online. Dezi Kiss is a moron who doesn't understand why we rank 23rd anymore than he understands how he lost to a man who did absolutely nothing. He is devoid of imagination which is why he condescendingly scoffed at my self-portrait. He lacks the imagination to draw. He also lacks the imagination to state definitively if technology is an aide or not. He says maybe. It is and always has been. Chalk was a huge leap forward, after all, in the classrooms about 80 years ago.
Dan Avery November 12, 2012 at 06:18 AM
There are not any classes that can be done "well" online. Period. There is something magical which happens in the classroom between the teacher and the students, at least when the teacher knows what they are doing.
Dan Avery November 12, 2012 at 06:26 AM
Shorter attention spans are absolutely a "bad" thing. Ask the Republican party once they figure out why they lost so large. If they don't figure out it's tied to their attention spans they will continue to lose big. Wikipedia is also a "bad thing." For the sole reason that "everyone" is an editor and can change it. I'm sorry, Charles, but that is not know knowledge works, nor is it how viable sources work. Oh, sure, my students loved it, because they did not have to read those long scholarly journals that were boring, but well-reserched and well-argued. My students loved internet sources because they said it "all" in under 600 words. (eyeroll) They wanted to get their "homework" done so they could go out and smoke dope and screw. Technology is just a tool and it shouldn't solve anything faster. Hard work is a virtue. Solving things faster with technology is just as stupid as solving things faster without it. Faster is not better. Faster is never a "good thing." Quality is a "good thing" and quality never happens fast. Never.
met00 November 12, 2012 at 09:21 AM
DISCLAIMER: 1) I make my living in technology 2) I make my living in education 3) I am an author of a patent on Educational Computer Adaptive Diagnostics 4) We have built a product off the patent that has been in test with over 3,000 5-8th graders for over 10 years, planned release is by Q4-2013 Now that the disclaimers are out of the way. BULLCRAP! I'm going to type this real slow so that everyone understands. Technology is NOT good or bad. Technology is a tool that can be used and misused. If you are saying that people that let technology babysit their kids, that parents who are uninvolved are a burden on the educational system, you'll get no argument from me there. It doesn't matter if they let their kids read comic books (excuse me, they are now called illustrated novels) or let them zone out in front of a 52 inch big screen. Parents who don't do their job as parents are the problem. It doesn't mater what the technology, a parent who doesn't take responsibility for being a primary educational coach to their kids is where the core of the problem lies, not the symptoms of the parental failure. Next we will hear how standardized tests are educational benchmarks. They are not.
met00 November 12, 2012 at 09:43 AM
[see disclaimers below] There are any number of people already out there offering "on-line education". They may or may not work (I tend to think not). There is little that makes me believe that there will be end-to-end classrooms and courses that are 100% on-line. On the other hand there are a few on-line efforts that look at the education process as a continuum and they seek to leverage technology withing a segment of that continuum. These efforts seek to add technology as a solution to specific problems in the educational cycle. Some provide drill based processes for material that needs to be learned by rote. Others (like ours) seek to empower the educator by integrating technology as a supportive tool (like textbooks are a supportive tool) that allows the educator to do their job more effectively. Yes student would use our tools and would have direct benefit from the toolset, but educators would be able to use the toolset to reduce class workload, to reduce educator workload, and to enhance their ability to determine when something is not being learned, and which students are specifically falling behind in the learning cycle and where. No one technology tool is a panacea for tackling the varied issues with education, but the fact is that technology leveraged correctly can enhance both the educator and the students ability to both teach and to learn more effectively.
tiny November 12, 2012 at 04:02 PM
While Lincoln may have rode in a horse and buggy, the famous technology he became famous for and transformed the world was rail. In 1862 he signed the Pacific Railway Act which started the transcontinental railroad which was completed with the golden spike in 1869. See Lincoln was allied with the American System School http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_School_(economics) (then scroll down for Lincoln) which was how we became the most powerful and progressive economy in the world. You're right in that the i-phone can't replace teachers. There seems to be a line that this technology shows we have economic growth and are advancing the economy, which is a fantasy. They've got them in Italy, Spain, Libya, etc. If we had kept our manufacturing and productive economy and integrated this new electronic communications into to it and upgraded it, then ok. But we now only have 12 million manufacturing jobs while China has 120 million. This is why we don't have jobs, not because technology is replacing them.
MFriedrich November 12, 2012 at 05:26 PM
As with everything in life, I think the answer depends. I've had some conversations with teachers of special needs children in Saddleback Valley who say that such children don't need to learn to write anymore (penmanship). Instead, we should be teaching them how to type and the usage of a keyboard for communications. This makes sense on one level. What I think is interesting is this desire to see technology to push and replace actions we did or items we used in the past. In those simple cases, it's really a no brainer. I don't want to carry around $500.00 cash in my wallet (Thanks credit cards, debit cards, e-wallets!), and I certainly don't want to go back to writing checks and sending them in the mail to pay bills, etc. (Thanks e-banking!). Sometimes technology is there not to replace an item or an activity (like student research), but rather simply to augment or improve that action. Education can play a very important role expanding the horizons of "how to apply and use" technology and solutions in the real world and solve both modern and future problems. Sometimes I think technology pushes the theory in our rear view and helps us focus on "apply and use". We definitely need to teach kids the "how and why" of Calculus, Statistics and Chemistry. At any rate, I don't agree that penmanship instruction should be withheld from children with special needs. Instead, I think we should teach them both penmanship AND keyboard typing?
fact checker November 12, 2012 at 08:52 PM
The Khan Academy filled a niche. Education is a palace full of niches, teachers, students, interactions, questions, theories, problems, solutions and discussions (the list is endless and dynamic). Education is also incredibly and wonderfully dynamic. Technology is a tool and is also incredibly and wonderfully dynamic. One will never effectively replace the other, thank goodness.
shelly November 12, 2012 at 10:06 PM
"Technology is an aid" as Shripathi states. I believe when people use it as a babysitter or a constant activity for their children then it becomes an issue. I believe the power of play and unscheduled unorganized downtime for children has been greatly under-rated. I believe that what is lacking for many is that their children are not allowed the time to play, problem solve, invent, imagine, move,etc. enough on their own, independent of a parent or instructor or planned activity. They can bubble in the correct choice out of the finite selected choices they are given but what about when they are asked to innovate? And about wikepedia, my middle school child in a CUSD school was not allowed to use wikepedia as a source for his project. He had to find more reliable sources. He had to use other search engines than google also.
tiny November 13, 2012 at 01:50 AM
So history contd: www.cprr.org/Museum/Centennial_Exhibition_1876 the centennial expo in Phili was a showcase of Am Sys industrial and technological power including the new steam locomotive engine. And countries like Germany, Russian and Japan set up deals for these American exports to build rail in their own countries and to open up their interiors to development and between countries. But the Mistress of the Seas where the sun never set realized this would break their control of trade by the seas and so they started organizing things to block this progress, which eventually led into WWI, then II cont. And we changed from our system to Adam Smith by way of assasinations, (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley from 1865 to 1901), and in my view, mass immigration of mainly non-English speakers after the Civil War, which caused many to reidentify with the English system that we were founded in oppoisition to, because the other identity was a mass of poor immigrants. Now history has written out the inconvenient parts where economists have not even heard of the American System. Long range thinking and planning has the upper hand.
Gabrielle Block November 13, 2012 at 01:50 AM
I think it depends. "Special needs kids" covers a lot of very diverse ground. Some kids with physical disabilities may not lack the coordination or strength in their hands to write, but still be able to learn to use a keyboard of some kind. I think it makes sense for kids (special needs or otherwise) to learn both writing and keyboard skills whenever the abilities of the child make that feasible.
Gabrielle Block November 13, 2012 at 02:02 AM
Whoops! The second sentence of my reply should be "...may lack the coordination..."
Gabrielle Block November 13, 2012 at 03:41 AM
I agree with met00. There are many ways that technology, including computer/internet technology, can be used to enhance learning and the educational experience. That doesn't mean that it can totally replace an in-person instructor or the "live" classroom experience.
Papa Pete November 13, 2012 at 10:51 PM
It is a good question, fair but tough to answer. I see it as having two parts. Part one, the technology as a tool is great. Part two, the technology infrastructure that is needed for part one is a black hole, or a money pit. I've seen schools wired with copper wiring, then a decision is made to go wireless. Sometimes there were no additional student computers provided with these upgrades, they were just trying to keep up with an arbitrary Master Technology Plan approved by the district. Free Apple computers years ago have been replaced at great expense, mostly with PC's, and now iPads. Old classrooms were not configured for the electrical distribution that was required with technology (computers, printers, scanners, smart boards, large screen monitors, teacher refrigerators and coffee pots and microwaves and stereos). It costs a lot of money to bring in additional power/switchboards and to distribute this power to classrooms. When the classrooms are a group of remote portable buildings, it is even more expensive. Spending bond money for technology is a bad idea because bonds usually are based on taxes being collected for 30 years. You can't do this with hardware and software that needs to be upgraded every few years.

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