"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Rush to Digitized Learning

I have just been paid a marvelous compliment by one of my students, who reports that he has read my entire blog from the beginning until now.  And then he asks whether I will continue to post.  His question reminded me that when I began writing this blog, I promised myself to post only when I had something to say.  It also reminded me that I have had not much to say lately that seemed appropriate for a blog rather than for a letter to some editor (for example).  

To honor my student, I decided to post such a letter from 2011, which only becomes more relevant as the school where I teach rushes ever more rapidly toward digitized learning.  Students who ask whether I am a Luddite get the answer "no, but I may be a Luddite sympathizer."  I believe digital tools are extremely useful.  But the purpose of a tool is not to manufacture more reasons to use the tool.  In the following letter I try to express the downside of digital learning as I see it.

July 14, 2011

Mr. Gary Beckner, Managing Editor
Education Matters
Association of American Educators

To the Editor:

            Having just finished reading Education Matters of July 2011, I must write to say that Jill Newell (“Natives and Pioneers:  Digital Education for Students and Teachers”) has apparently been on a steady diet of techno-cool-aid.  She claims that it is “essential to embrace digital learning,” a claim apparently based on little more than wishful thinking about technology’s being “a key, if not the key” to “retooling the old style of learning.” She neglects to notice that the initial effect of this “retooling” is illiteracy. 

            As a teacher for 38 years, 25 of those in high school, I am finding that the generation of students who almost from birth have sucked at the iPhone and been weaned to the screen simply cannot read—that is, cannot understand what they read in language above the elementary level.  Many have no inkling of the notion that a challenging passage of English prose can be mastered with concentration, a dictionary, and labor.

            The real objection to the digitalization of learning (which Newell equates with “improvement”) is not, as she argues, that it is “an attack on educators.”  No.  The real objection is that it is an attack on students, an undermining of their intellectual development by just those institutions that are supposed to be fostering it. 

            The point was well made by Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, in an article called “Too Dumb for Complex Texts?” (Educational Leadership [Vol. 68, No. 5, Feb. 2011], pp. 28–33).  Professor Bauerlein is the author of The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don't Trust Anyone Under 30) (Penguin, 2008).

            Bauerlein writes that in 2008 “43 percent of students at two-year public colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year public colleges” “had graduated from high school, but they didn’t have the knowledge and skills to tackle readings, tests, and papers at the next level.  So the college assigned these freshmen to a remedial unit in math, reading, or writing.” 

            Why was this necessary?  Because trained up on “blogs, wikis, Facebook pages, multimedia assemblages, and the like,” or given “traditional texts—novels, speeches, science articles, and so on—in digital format with embedded links, hypertext, word-search capability, and other aids”—just the methods Ms. Newell is advertising—the students are simply unready for college. 

            Why?  The “cause is, precisely, the inability to grasp complex texts,” an inability arising from the substitution of technological connectivity for focused reading.  Professor Bauerlein argues that unlike the screen, complex texts demand a “willingness to probe,” “the capacity for uninterrupted thinking,” “a receptivity to deep thinking,” and “a habit of slow reading.”  And then he shows us how digitalized learning militates against precisely those necessities.

            “This is not to say that schools should go Luddite,” he says.  But we should “preserve a crucial place for unwired, unplugged, and unconnected learning.”  In contrast to Newell’s “key,” Bauerlein’s key is “to regularize the instruction and make slow reading exercises a standard part of the curriculum.  Such practices may do more to boost college readiness than 300 shiny laptops down the hall—and for a fraction of the price.”

            Professor Bauerlein’s essay only confirmed my own experience and my own theory, which is that students trained up on screens have only ever experienced instantaneous comprehension.  Everything presented on a screen is, to them, instantly understood.  If in three seconds it is not understood, they need only click to a new screen that will be instantly understood.  As a result, they never experience their own ability to break through to comprehension through attention, concentration, and thought.  They simply believe, through no fault of their own, that they can’t do it—and no wonder.  They have never had to try.

            Ms. Newell’s prescription, I believe, will lead to a generation of highly techno-capable information junkies who cannot read or reason.  I see the problem every day.  And in the context of all the hype about the usefulness of gadgets, it has become a labor of Hercules to force students, against their will, their experience, and societal pressure, to concentrate enough to have even a single experience of the intellectual breakthrough that can be delivered only by intellectual concentration on a complex text. 

            “In other words,” says Bauerlein, “complex texts require single-tasking, an unbroken and unbothered focus.”  Of that focus the “digitalization of education” is the constitutional foe.  Without that focus, no amount of so-called “improvement” by the innovation-besotted will make a dent in the inability of our students to comprehend a complex text—that is, to think.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Absolutely concur with your opinion on this subject. Technology can be a useful supplement at times, but can not and should not replace traditional methods of learning and pedagogy. Some recent studies seem to indicate that over-reliance on technology at a young age can actually affect brain development (and not beneficially). Unfortunately a new generation of "teachers" raised this way are now finding their way into the classroom.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Diron Talbertson said...

No one is talking about replacing learning with computers. No one.

A lecture, such as presented by Dr. Rappaport himself on the internet can be very useful. Whoever claimed that a computer is a substitute for hard work? No one.

Usually an explanation which can be repeated on the computer is better than listening to an overpaid teacher.

4:23 PM  
Blogger GRap said...

The comments by Diron Talbertson are rather too inchoate and unsupported to warrant much rebuttal. If he thinks his sentences form a coherent argument, he may be providing more evidence for my argument in the blog. I will try to address his points as best I can.

"No one is talking about replacing learning with computers. No one."

Repetition (“No one . . . No one”) does not prove truth. Plenty of people are talking about changing the techniques and content of learning through use of computers, and what they are not talking about is the downside of doing so in all the ways that are being promoted. It seems that Mr. Talbertson has not sat, as I have done, through a school sales pitch by an Apple marketer whose solution to every educational problem was some Apple app. Nor has he refuted, or even acknowledged, the evidence for reduced learning offered in my letter.

"A lecture, such as presented by Dr. Rappaport himself on the internet can be very useful."

I appreciate that vote of confidence about my online lectures. I am glad that he believes they can be useful. I agree. But they cannot be useful to anyone who has not been able to read with comprehension the plays that form their subject, nor can they provide a substitute for such reading.

"Whoever claimed that a computer is a substitute for hard work? No one."

People have been claiming for years that the computer makes all sorts of things faster, easier, more accessible, etc. What they have not recognized is what C.S. Lewis calls the “fatal serialism” of our age, the habit of believing that if something is good in one context for one purpose, it will be even better in wider contexts for multiple purposes. Such thinking assumes that there are no natural limits to a good thing.

That a computer is useful for this or that purpose —and I agree that it is; I’m using one now—does not mean that it will be useful for all purposes. In many respects its rapidly increasing application in more and more educational contexts is proving to be counterproductive, as I tried to argue, and not many voices of authority these days are willing to say so—at least not at my school or in the teachers’ newsletters I read. Whether or not anyone claims the computer is a substitute for hard work is irrelevant. Under its influence, many are claiming that education is essentially about information-transfer rather than about the forming and enhancing of mind. Hard work applied to information-transfer is not the same as hard work applied to reading and thinking, and studies are now showing the ways in which the increased use of computers in fact hampers serious reading and deep thinking.

"Usually an explanation which can be repeated on the computer is better than listening to an overpaid teacher."

It is difficult to know how to address this illogical statement. Online teachers, like offline teachers, may be overpaid, underpaid, unpaid, or appropriately paid. What matters is the quality of the teaching and of the learning. The repetition of a good lecture online is a valuable tool, no question. The repetition of nonsense online, as in the classroom, would be counterproductive. Mr. Talbertson’s “usually” is so vague that one cannot begin to know what he means by it. I would agree that there are many teachers to whose classroom lecturing I would prefer almost any online explanation. At the same time, there can be no online explanation that could possibly substitute for living interaction with a great teacher or focused thinking about a great book. Mr. Talbertson’s “Usually . . . better” is a vague claim made without support and without addressing the actual argument of my letter.

I will be happy to consider a more coherent argument on the subject if Mr. Talbertson should wish to offer one.

11:50 PM  

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