Guest post from Woodside High School English Teacher Anthony Mueller
Most people regard the technological advances of the last two decades as evidence of progress towards a more efficient, productive and connected society. Personal computer technology, smart phones, and Internet connectivity have certainly provided an economic boon for those businesses that have embraced them, both providing greater economic influence for technology companies and increasing the productivity of workers in general. Consumers and businesses have gravitated towards these products, and in doing so, have also bought the marketing hype surrounding them. People have faith that more technology is making the world better.
With these advances, some have raised concerns about privacy, security, and the possible cognitive and social impacts for a society that is increasingly plugged in and turned on.
As a high school teacher, I see both sides of the story.
In many ways, technology has made my job easier. I can communicate with colleagues, develop curriculum and engage students using the technological tools available to me. In a school with over one hundred teachers and administrators, using email has become essential in discussing student achievement and sharing curricular ideas. I recently acquired a document projector attached to a digital whiteboard, so now I can review student writing with the class as the students revise on their personal laptops. Homework is posted on the Internet, and students can communicate with their teachers and classmates using message boards, blogs and email. Ample student data is available to me with a few clicks of the mouse.
One would expect that these advances would have paid off in increased student achievement, but unfortunately, this hasn’t been the case. For all the benefits of computer technology, there are hidden costs and insidious effects of technology consumption on our young people.
The most worrisome trend that I confront in my classroom is students’ lack of attention and their inability to concentrate. When I assign tasks that are multifaceted and based in technology, such as putting together a PowerPoint presentation, students are immediately engaged and productive. But not all assignments can and should take this form. Students must also develop skills in reading and understanding difficult texts, working through complex problems, and developing creative and sophisticated solutions to them. The gratification in these tasks is not immediate; they can only be understood through thorough analysis and prolonged engagement. The discipline and concentration that a student needs to engage in these activities has been pushed aside in favor of rapid-fire knowledge acquisition and surface-level comprehension. Reasoning and critical thinking skills cannot be acquired using Google or referencing Wikipedia, but must instead develop though discipline and hard work.
The quality of student writing is also implicated by our increased reliance on technology. Writing conventions such as punctuation and spelling– essential for students in establishing a professional or academic ethos– have given way to the sloppiness of the quickly composed email. Text message language has become the norm, and having to constantly remind and re-teach high school students that “I” must be capitalized and that “u” isn’t a word means that advanced writing skills are often left behind.
This lack of attention is also having a pernicious effect on students’ proclivity to work independently. Reading twenty pages of The Catcher in the Rye at home over a few days isn’t an unreasonable expectation, but how can Salinger or Shakespeare compete with Facebook, World of Warfare and Hulu? When given the choice, Macbeth is forgotten in students’ backpacks as the iPhone devours their time and energy.
In response to the changing interests, cognitive abilities and demands of a technology-centered world, my colleagues and I have worked to incorporate more computing, Internet research and social networking in our classes. Still, I often wonder how well this serves my students in the long run. Many vocational, social and self-reflective skills require quiet determination, serious and prolonged investigation, and attentive revision that run counter to the instant gratification delivered by the Internet. As teachers rush to compete with this technology, we are increasingly relied upon to entertain perpetually “bored” students, thus perpetuating the myth that tasks must always be fun and exciting to be worthwhile.
Though computer technology has admittedly provided our society with a great many benefits, it is worth exploring what we may be losing in the bargain. We’ve moved very quickly into embracing and defending our advances in computer technology, without exploring the ramifications to the minds of young people and the future of our society.
Woodside High School
January 7, 2011