Is technology negatively affecting our education?

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Is technology negatively affecting our education?

Postby Roadkill » Sat May 17, 2008 2:26 pm

http://www.economist.com/science/displa ... d=11392128

Will reading and writing remain important?

THE Macintosh has a lot to answer for. The first time your correspondent clapped eyes on its graphical user interface (GUI), he realised the game was up. The use of icons instead of written words seemed the final admission that we had given up trying to read and write, and had entered a post-literate age.

The Apple Macintosh wasn’t the first computer to have a GUI based on windows, icons, menus and pointing devices (known collectively as “wimp”). Back in the early 1970s, Xerox pioneered most of the wimp features with its legendary Alto personal computer for researchers, and later its Star computer for office use.

But Apple brought the dumbed-down pictorial interface to the rest of the world. And once Microsoft followed suit, by grafting a friendly Windows face on its crusty old MS-DOS operating system, it became the norm.
Why Johnny can't read

No question, without a wimpy GUI, computers would never have become as popular as they are today. The command-line interface—with its forbidding prompt and blinking cursor—required mastering a whole catechism of arcane instructions that only a priesthood of computerdom could cherish.

When “root@computername:~# shutdown -h now” could be replaced by a simple click of a mouse to switch off a computer, novices of all ages and backgrounds could climb aboard the digital bandwagon.

The flight from literacy to digiracy didn’t stop there. The printed word has fought a rear-guard action against not only computers and television, but also a whole horde of digital upstarts from DVDs and video games to mobile phones, iPods, YouTube and now the mobile internet. Meanwhile, newspapers, magazines and books have faded to shadows of their former selves, as a post-literate generation finds its facts and fun elsewhere.

According to Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University and author of “The Dumbest Generation”, leisure reading among American 15-to-17-year-olds fell from 18 minutes a day in 1981 to seven in 2003. Electronic media, of one sort or another, now occupy every spare moment.

Mr Bauerlein fears that, far from opening new vistas for learning and awareness, digital technology has fostered a level of public ignorance that now threatens not just our competitive wellbeing but our democracy as well.

To some extent, government statistics bear him out. Proficiency scores in reading, writing, science and mathematics for American teenagers in their last year of high school all fell between 1992 and 2005. Only one in three children left high school able to read proficiently. Only one in four could write a coherent paragraph.

Cultural observers bemoan the way electronic media—with their demand for spectacle and brevity—have shortened our attention spans. But as a blogger on Eastgate.com noted recently, that equates brevity with debased taste, and sees patience for long stories as a mark of high culture. But if brevity is to be deplored, what should we make of haiku, sonnets, and ink-brush calligraphy?

On the other side of the coin, lengthy sagas are not the sole prerogative of the literary elite. Pop culture has its share of huge tales—witness the Harry Potter canon. Indeed, for every pared-down presentation pumped out by the electronic media, an engaging narrative can be found.

None more so than Michael Straczynski’s television masterpiece, “Babylon 5”—a single narrative, conceived, written and produced essentially by one person, spanning 80 hours of performance spread over five years. That’s the equivalent of 40 full-length feature films, or a handful of books by Dickens.

Literacy may be under attack from electronic media, but that’s actually nothing new. In fact, the assault on the written word began not with the Macintosh computer in 1984, but with Samuel Morse’s demonstration of the telegraph in 1844—an innovation a colleague on The Economist insists, quite correctly, on calling the “Victorian internet”.

In an essay on why Johnny and Janey can’t read (and why Mr and Ms Smith can’t teach), Mark Federman of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, argued that the telegraph was the first to “undo” the effects of the written word.

Where the phonetic alphabet separated the sound of a word from its meaning; and encoded that sound in symbols we call letters; and combined those symbols into hierarchical groupings called words, sentences, paragraphs and, ultimately, books; the telegraph recombined those symbols with sound—enabling the instantaneous transmission of information from person to person across vast distances.

If the telegraph was the starting point, Mr Federman reckons we are probably half way through a 300-year transition out of the world of mass literacy. That world began when Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in 1455, and gave birth along the way to the Reformation, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, and finally the Industrial Revolution—not to mention the modern era of newspapers, universal education and, yes, mass literacy.

Why 300 years? Because that’s how long it takes to reform social institutions. It’s the period needed for a generation to cease hearing about the way things used to be done from great-grandparents, who had heard about such things from their own great-grandparents.

So, where in this brave new world of post-literacy are we heading? Er, not sure...

What little we know is that our sources of trusted wisdom are eroding fast. When academics pay to have their findings published, invent results or ignore conflicting data to keep a sponsor’s money flowing, it’s hard to view our learned institutions as sources of reliable information.

Nowadays, we seem to put greater faith in the wisdom of crowds. Hence our trust of Google, which ranks a web page by how many other pages are linked to it, and how many other searchers view the page in question. In doing so, we prize the confidence of our peers above that of experts.

In Mr Federman’s view, the quest for truth has given way to the quest for making sense of the world as experienced. For anyone under the age of 20, the world being experienced is one where the internet has always existed, and where everyone who matters is only a click, speed dial or text message away. “Tomorrow’s adults,” says Mr Federman, “live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.” Their direct experience of the world is wholly different from yours or mine.

So, no surprise that when we incarcerate teenagers of today in traditional classroom settings, they react with predictable disinterest and flunk their literacy tests. They are skilled in making sense not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Teachers must recognise that our pedagogical tools are inconsistent with the skills needed to survive in a world where people are always connected to everyone and everything. In such a world, learning to think for oneself could well be more important than simply learning to read and write.


I'm a little shocked that the literacy rate has fallen, and a quick wiki search on literacy rates in the US seems to confirm that the rate reported by the government, 99%, is unreasonably high. This article seems to confirm the statements about the declining rate made by the economist.

This doesn't seem to be the first such statement, that technology has made us a more demanding and less patient culture, but it is the first I've seen it tied to literacy rates -- in a positive way. Having had to argue with my grandpa, who is a high school drop out, about why certain emails are illegitimate and baseless claims against certain politicians and policies -- I do value critical thinking well over literacy. Yet, the two, I thought, were linked -- it is believable that a person can be a critical thinker without being able to read or produce a well written article (afterall, how did humanity evolve without reading if that were the case?), but in a powerful democratic society, such articles are how we get reasonable information and make more authoritative connections. If we didn't, then the whole society might actually fall to the level of my grandpa -- basing their claims on hotheaded but factually incorrect chain emails.
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Re: Is technology negatively affecting our education?

Postby TerraFrost » Sat May 17, 2008 7:42 pm

The whole article reads like a luddite manifesto.

Consider memory. If we didn't write anything down, we'd have to rely on our memory more and thus might have better memory. But as is, we can write stuff down fairly easily, and our memory likely suffers because of it. Does that mean we should just stop writing anything down, ever? No. Fact is, memory isn't perfect and likely can't ever be. You're going to forget, regardless, and writing stuff down helps negate the consequences of such forgetfulness. So maybe you'd only forget 2 things a year as opposed to 2 things a month, or whatever - you're still forgetting things.

Same thing with the internet. The article seems to suggest that reading a physical copy of the New York Times is infinitely better than reading it online, which is a completely bogus assertion.

All in all, it seems to me that every generation is seen as being dumber than the one before it. I remember thinking, myself, when I was in high school "I'm surrounded by idiots. I can't believe that these are the leaders of tomorrow." But in all likelihood, they're not going to be the leaders of tomorrow. Leaders aren't exactly a dime or dozen. How many of todays leaders did your parents know when they were in school? There probably weren't any. So why should you - or anyone - get discouraged when they look around them and don't see any world leaders among them?

None more so than Michael Straczynski’s television masterpiece, “Babylon 5”—a single narrative, conceived, written and produced essentially by one person, spanning 80 hours of performance spread over five years. That’s the equivalent of 40 full-length feature films, or a handful of books by Dickens.

Need to get Gigafrost to watch that sometime!
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Re: Is technology negatively affecting our education?

Postby Roadkill » Sat May 17, 2008 11:04 pm

This isn't about where the leaders come from, just the overall status of the population. A negative consequence of the increased connectivity, is essentially the submersion of our population in mass gossip, or more familiarity with gossip. Greater and more instantaneous access to non-vital information distracts people away from critical information, creating barriers to the natural development of such skills. Who is going to read the New York times online, when chain emails keep you informed, and youtube and TV sites bring you all the entertainment you need and want? News stations stop focusing on the important and become "news entertainment" stations, like FOX NEWS, in order to garner ratings.

While I don't think this will bring about a situation as in "Idiocracy", and I recognize that the internet and technology does enable grassroots movements, it tends to give even more power to populist movements. And populism is just as bad, if not worse, than authoritarianism. It even has the guise of democracy.
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Re: Is technology negatively affecting our education?

Postby TerraFrost » Sun May 18, 2008 5:33 am

Roadkill wrote:This isn't about where the leaders come from, just the overall status of the population.

No, but leaders do affect the perception of various generations. You look at your fathers generation and see not only your father and his peers, but also world leaders. You look at younger generations and you don't see any leaders.

ie. leaders artificially inflate the status of older generations. Younger generations don't yet have leaders to inflate their status and so, comparatively, they're, overall, perceived as being less noble.

In any event,

While I don't think this will bring about a situation as in "Idiocracy", and I recognize that the internet and technology does enable grassroots movements, it tends to give even more power to populist movements. And populism is just as bad, if not worse, than authoritarianism. It even has the guise of democracy.

Is wikipedia.org an example of populism or authoritarianism? I'd say it has aspects of both. The fact that anyone can edit it is an example of populism, but the fact that people actually cite it and the fact that it requires citations (see WP:V and WP:NOR, for instance) is an example of authoritarianism.

Maybe wikipedia.org is 55% populism and 45% authoritarianism. Maybe it's 45% populism and 55% authoritarianism. The point is that it's not black and white and neither is the internet. In fact, I'd say that the only thing the internet really does is speed things up. It didn't invent chain letters nor does it lend any more credibility to them. It just makes their propagation that much faster and more economical.
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Re: Is technology negatively affecting our education?

Postby Roadkill » Mon May 19, 2008 9:02 pm

I am not blaming the internet per se, but wondering aloud whether this is a correct observation. Is the spread of such technology allowing for a much stronger and more rapid spread of populism?

And I do not mean to draw in that the current generation is less powerful than the last. The pure argument here is "Are people born during and after the 1980's (in the 'technology age') suffering some sort of loss of quality of education that can be attributed to the rapid spread of popular technology?"
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