May 232012
 

Digital free learning, novel idea isn’t it? This topic has been cropping up in the staff room quite frequently the past few months and it isn’t just your garden variety bellyaching you use to hear about kids and cellphones in class. It is what can only be described as collective concern about what seems to be happening to the traditional processes by which students have been learning for generations. There is an unsettling feeling that with the digitization of our learning environments, we are throwing the baby out with the bath water and what is more, many teachers are feeling a bit over run by the Digital Hoard.

This is not to say that teachers feel that everything digital is bad, just that there is a huge risk in embracing a medium which we know very little about when it comes to learning and cognition. There is a genuine concern that a wholesale digitization of the classroom, will destroy the very learning environments that have brought us to this point in our human evolution.

As I was perusing the literature for some supporting evidence for the notion of academic subversion by digitization, I stumbled upon a collection of essays in a book called The Digital Divide. Each of the essays looks at the effects of the digital revolution on our world and the changes it has made to the social and intellectual fabric of our society. All of these essays marvel at the changes driven by the digitization of our world but many of them also have concerns about how this will play out in the long term. When I finished the book, I came back to one essay Learning to think in a digital world by Maryanne Wolf where she concluded with a quote from Technological visionary Edward Tennent . It would be a shame if the very intellect that produced the digital revolution could be destroyed by it.”

This one quote brought me right back to the discussions around the staff room lunch table. Are we unwittingly dismantling the very thing that got us here? Many teachers feel that students are quickly losing critical cognitive skills because of their ever growing digital dependence and it is hard to find a teacher who will disagree. Common laments include:

  • Inability deduce or infer meaning from a text.
  • Inability to draw relationships between like or unlike things
  • Lack of original thought (pulling something out of nothing)
  • little or no patience for working things out without digital assistance.
  • Taking things at face value or believing that there is a single web searchable answer

I even encounter some of these with my own children. Although my wife and I have gone to great lengths to restricted their access to the NET for entertainment or academic purposes, they have been conditioned to defer to a search engine whenever they can’t figure anything out under their own brain power. I can only assume this comes from school because at home, we do our best to be inhumane and make them turn pages of books and actually think about the questions they are working on. There is very little “Let’s just Google it!” In our household.

What this suggests to me is that some valuable thinking skills which once were part and parcel of our education system have already been lost to the great search engine in the sky.

So what do we do?

Well… like it or not, the digital horse is out of the barn and we are not going to get it back in anytime soon. As a über digi-geek myself, I certainly don’t want to go back but I recognize that there is a need for some serious thought about the how and when we should be exposing kids to digital media and the devices that deliver it.

In the same Maryanne Wolf essay mentioned above, she opens her concluding paragraph with “Children need to have both time to think and the motivation to think for themselvs, to develop and expert reading brain before the digital mode dominates their reading.” Sven Birkerts referred to this as Deep Reading. It is the kind of reading where the individual is able to to infer meaning from a text, or extend their thinking beyond what is literary expressed in that text. We know that having this type of reading and thinking skill is crucial to ones academic success, yet there is mounting evidence that digital delivery derails it.

We are faced with a growing academic conundrum. On one hand, maybe old school learning and thinking is simply passé and we need to just let go of the old and move on with the new. On the other, if we acquiesce and let the tried and true become consumed by digitization, we may lose more then anyone can possibly imagine. Even I, a über digi-geek, think it prudent to preserve at least some vestige of what got us here but where do we start.

Currently it would seem the approach that is being taken is like that of the small river side community during spring run off. The digital river just keeps on coming and the towns people are sand bagging like crazy trying to hold back the rising waters. The problem is that the flow of digital media will not stop and so we need to find a way to save the most important structures in our little river side education community. Time for resistance is long past, coexistence is what we need to be working toward.

Were it up to me, I would start with five common sense things, which would act as a foundation on which coexistence could be built. Some of it is under way but none of it seems to be part of any “real” plan.

  1. We need to get both the pro digital and the anti digital sides to agree that there is value in both the new and the old.
  2. We need to identify what we cannot afford to loose from old school education and ensure it is a part of a quality new age education.
  3. We need to take a serious look at the effects of digital media on the immature brain and establish guidelines for age appropriate access to digital delivery.
  4. Lets start building a school culture that recognizes that digital tools are not always necessary or beneficial to learning certain things.
  5. Lets make sure there are digital free spaces, where the brain is the only advanced electronic in the room.

Lets be clear, I LOVE digital technology. I am even one of those rotten people who are cramming it down other educators throats whether they want me to or not. I recognize however, that we cannot allow the digitization of our schools to wipe out the education system we are all a product of. As a parent, I don’t want my children to be digitally dependent and I sincerely think there is far too much to be lost if we were to allow this to happen. We need to start bridging the digital divide and working to create an education system that values where we came from and where we are going. This can only be accomplished if we are working together.

The first step is to accept that the digital age is here but we also need to recognize that it would have never arrived where it not for good old fashioned schooling.