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
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.