“I’m an immigrant to this world, where our kids are natives”, says a high school teacher in the Frontline documentary Digital Nation, made by PBS (Public Broadcasting Station). In this documentary, Rachel Dretzin and Douglas Rushkoff explore the impact of digital media on education and on how kids learn. They address a challenge that many teachers might recognize: how do you teach and keep the attention of children who are used to constant stimuli, from dozens of sources? Since this is a very recent issue, not much research has been done on this topic. The documentary, however, tries give an introduction by interviewing both pro- and opponents of using digital media in education, backed up by some initial research. Both sides have compelling arguments why to use or not use digital media in schools. But most of the time it is not just a matter of a simple yes or no, but addresses much more complicated matter, like which digital media are used and in what way. I recognize some of the problems addressed in my daily life and for instance when I had to focus for writing a thesis. Being a young, tech-savvy new media enthusiast, this is sometimes difficult to admit.
The documentary starts with a depiction of MIT students who are constantly wired, which means that they are always connected to the internet with their technological devices. With these devices they are able to multitask: writing an essay while facebooking, attending a lecture while chatting with friends or googling something and writing a post on twitter. They claim to be very good at multi-tasking because they are trained in it, and they couldn’t think of a world without it. Just reading a book for hours, or listening to someone talking in front of a class is not stimulating enough compared to what they do in their free time. Recent research on multitasking by Stanford University, however, has indicated that people are a lot less effective while multitasking, because they perform worse on each task they do when compared to focusing on one task at the time. Another concern is the way that students study and memorize things. Instead of writing an essay in one sit with constant focus, students today write in ‘snippets’, with constant interruptions and distractions that can lead to less coherency within papers. This phenomenon even led Mark Bauerlein to writing the book “The Dumbest Generation“, in which he argues that academic capabilities have declined since the introduction of digital media and the accompanying attitude of instant gratification.
Should teachers stick to their ‘old’ way of teaching then? It might be difficult to engage students with this teaching model when they are used to much more stimuli. In the documentary an example was given of a problem school in the Bronx (New York City), where, after the introduction of laptops for every student and using it in the class room, attendance has gone up, incidents of violence went down, and test scores in reading and math went up. As new media sociologist Sherry Turkle notes: “Technology can be applied in good ways and bad. It’s not the panacea. It depends how; it depends what. It depends how rich you are, what other things you have going for you. It’s a very complicated story.” And I agree with her. Using networked technology in education (or our daily lives) is a very new phenomena and changes many things. Neglecting technology seems no option and we have to find out ways how it can be integrated into existing systems. Approach it open-minded and explore the possibilities, Henry Jenkins (USC) preaches. Games, for instance, give learning opportunities that old media can’t. It really depends on how we use technology and are able to channel the information overload.