A recent PBS special looked at the effects of everything from multi- tasking to distractions caused by our blackberries, cellphones, email and constantly being plugged in to this digital world of ours. They looked at a Stanford university study, the first of its kind, that measured the effectiveness of multi-tasking using MRI scans to find most people who think they are wonderful at multi tasking are really bad at it. Finding that ability to do basic tasks is significantly decreased when attempting to do several things at once. The special also attempted to assess the effect of continual media input on the human brain contrasting the examples of internet surfing and reading a book; in this comparison they found that much more was lit up in the decision making centers of the brain while net surfing and less was lit up in the middle of the brain when reading. However they likened the reading equal less activity to building muscle, once the muscle is built less effort is needed.
PBS reporters also looked at the effects positive and negative on society such as the debate going on among educators about the effect of technology on kids along with how much or how little to put in the classroom. It showcased success stories like the school in the Bronx that went from abysmal attendance and problems with violence to a 90th percentile attendance rate and improvements in all grade levels’ test scores in every subject. Opponents across the board are worried about all this input on young brains; they are also concerned about distractions to learning as kids use this new technology to goof off finding ways to access blocked sites like Myspace and Facebook while at school doing work, using the built in webcams available to the 6th grade and up, at the school in the Bronx, as a mirror. College professors point to a severe lack of reading and writing skills; one saying he could no longer assign a novel of over 200 pages. Technology concerns also stem from the fact that students aren’t reading the works but are skimming cliff note sites like Sparks. Students seem to be writing paragraphs not papers; the paragraphs are great but don’t seem to be connected was a comment relayed by one student from his teacher, apparently due to switching between e-mail, internet, computer games and homework.
The subject of addiction also came up as the segment looked at other countries digital revolutions, specifically South Korea, where all night internet cafès quickly have gamers hooked, where students are failing out of classes in favor of computer games and net surfing, as they try to counter act the meanness found on some social networking sites and address the dependency issues. Chronicling one boy and his mother she talked about his lowering grades, the fact that all he wants to do is play his computer games, that when he’s on the computer it’s not doing homework it’s playing a game, how he hardly talks when she tries to engage him in conversation. South Korea’s solutions to all this, netiquette lessons in school beginning with the smallest grades trying to infuse their legendary politeness into the digital arena along with camps for kids who appear to be addicted to the online world. Camp was 10 days long with no gadgets; kids were asked in sessions about things like drop in school performance, health concerns such as eyestrain as well as being introduced to other activities pitching a tent, jumping rope, socialization.
Returning to America, the special moved beyond kids and teens to adults giving viewers a look at IBM using the online, virtual world of Second Life to conduct business meetings worldwide. No more giant buildings used for executive retreats or company conferences, no more board meetings confined to rooms big or small; now they are done in the virtual world over a computer where those involved can sip coffee and be in their PJ’s while their online persona gives voice to their ideas in the comfort of their own home. The company advantage is they do not have to fly people from around the country to connect with each other, announce changes or assess growth and operation across the nation or world wide; at the same time, IBM gets the advantage of utilizing talent across the globe no matter what country they are in, because with an internet connection, they are only a click away.
Much of the concern voiced in the piece seems to come from not only those older, non digital natives but people who lag behind in what the real world, the employment world is like; those most vehemently opposed to the technological advancements also seem to know the least about how they are used or the effects of using them. For instance if we look at the school in the Bronx and others featured, no one is trading a computer for books. In the special 6th grade students were reading To Kill a Mocking Bird; students were then given assignments to complete using both the book and their computers. Discussion questions, websites, blogs dedicated to characters or themes, kids writing on each others on-line walls about what they read, all a part of this digital education experience; however in crafting all this they had to use pages from the book to back up what they were saying. It points to the idea that what we teach is not changing it’s simply how we teach it, the bells and whistles. We are integrating the computer into other educational forms.
Others are concerned that using computer games, on-line educational games to teach vocabulary or math sends a dangerous message to kids and educators that we have to meet them on their level, that instead students must conform to the prescribed methods, come up to adult standards. The principle in the Bronx school said the old system teaches kids to sit down and be quiet, yet he doesn’t know of any job today where they ask you to sit down and be quiet. Likewise it often becomes a case of whatever allows the student to get the information; it doesn’t matter if they learn the math using a dry erase board or a computer game, whether they learn the vocabulary by conventional methods or a computer game; what matters is they learn the information. One of the side effects of this kind of education is the kids are engaged like never before. Another issue adults new to the technology age worry about, virtual worlds blurring the lines between reality and fantasy, but propionates of the evolving approaches say that kids move seamlessly in and out of both worlds, as we see every day with kids and teens and their gadgets.
As part of the transitional generation between paper and pen and the computer, I find myself envious of kids going to the schools featured in the PBS documentary, because they are learning the skills that adults, even as young as myself, are scrambling to get, are beseeching to be taught. They are learning the skills that are found nowhere else, learning the skills that mean the difference between success and not in today’s world. Learning how to create a blog or website not only allows them to market their own idea, but work for existing blog companies that need content, work for web designers and a host of other in demand job opportunities. At the same time, the students learn to manage their distractions, know what it’s like to meet deadlines even while dealing with all the input being thrown at them.
It is roughly the same with the college professors’ thoughts on reading and writing capability; it is not so much technology pulling them in so many directions as it is the staples of college life. In addition to parties, kegs and the increasing number of extra curricular activities needed for rèsumè, students are juggling their math homework, their physics paper and their English assignment, that is why they cannot assign a novel over 200 pages, not because everyone’s attention span suddenly got shorter. One student interviewed said if their were 27 hours in a day I would read Hamlet, but with only 24 I go online and get the summary in 5 minutes. It becomes a matter of time available not distractions. As for writing paragraphs not papers, you mean writing perfect for any number of blogs, on-line ad reviews or even magazine and newspaper articles that want something less than 500 words, perfect for the writing industry that is convinced that the American attention span goes no further, true or not. Short and punchy is the newspaper motto and there are veteran writers who can’t get jobs doing something other than that. These students are poised to better function in the world than their older counterparts.
Professors need to realize that cliff notes have been used since their invention; the only thing that changed was their method of delivery. Instead of buying the cliff notes in the college bookstore they go to a website. The need for cliff notes has perhaps increased not because of attention span or distraction, but because, as time goes on, students are asked to read things in increasingly dead language forms. There is a reason that Beowulf is only presented in college texts as a translation; there is a reason why works like the Odyssey come with plain English chapter summaries, without them they are incomprehensible. That is even more true when dealing the literary staples like Chaucer and Shakespeare. Other classics may prove a cultural challenge for students, as they have no point of reference from their life or the things they see in society on which to draw from and so use cliff notes to clarify.
Multi-tasking is probably the thing least likely to be effected by what anyone says about it; it is far too engrained on our culture nowadays. Regardless of how bad or good you are at it, it has become a necessity and not just in terms of keeping up with your friends and relatives; multi- tasking is a non negotiable job skill. Employers today will hire one person to do no less than 5 people’s jobs in the name of cutting costs. Project managers, journalists, businessmen all multi-task because they have to in order to do their job well; even for a simple office job you are multi-tasking you may be answering the phones, inputting appointments, typing company letters, stuffing envelopes, creating flyers, filing papers and dealing with people coming into the office all at once. The idea multi-tasking is something new is also a misnomer; ask any woman living and working after the 1950’s and you will have met a multi-tasker, who has made an art form out of origination, time management and juggling things in life. And the idea that kids from junior high on up should not learn how to multi-task is only setting them up for failure. Success in doing this may come down to how you multi-task; grouping like things together may work for you, grouping tasks like envelope stuffing with needed phone conversations may help as the former does not need lots of brain power. Sending e-mails that require a reply first and spending the time waiting for said replies answering other email is another strategy.
As for the assertions about addiction to digital media, it is quite clear, at least from an American standpoint, that it has become an “addiction” of convenience if we all stop and think about it, it’s easier for you to let your kids talk to their friends via e-mail or web cam than it is to drop kids off at their friends house and have to pick them up or have to entertain tween girls, supervise a group of teen boys. It is easier to know they are in their room or the family room playing a computer game than it is to keep track of what time they are supposed to be home from a friends or to remember to pick them up from an after school activity. Many parents likewise don’t know how to take computer games off of the family computer or their child’s computer; they don’t know how to block gaming sites so when the child is on the internet it eliminates at least the distraction of games.
Much of this parallels with the segment on the South Korean boy and his mother; an added component in this case was, unlike American parents, no one was telling that child to turn off the computer and come set the table or help with dinner, no one was telling him to turn off the game and do his homework. The attempts at conversation seemed half hearted; sometimes the best time to talk to boys is while they are physically engaged in something else. The best time to talk to him and have the quality conversation his mother is looking for may be while he is playing the game. The camp seems like a quick fix; these kids were doing things at camp no one has given them the opportunity to do elsewhere. There is no one to take them camping, teach them how to pitch a tent, you cannot socialize minus technology if there is no way to interact face to face. The fix for South Korea and most westernized nations is a return to real activity, kids being able to go to friends houses, family camping trips or nature walks, making fun activities accessible to those too young to drive.
The so-called digital addiction is also an “addiction” of necessity; this part was extraordinarily downplayed in the piece. They made brief mention of the fact that you cannot ignore your boss or your bills, but they don’t seem to understand what that means. With things like on-line bill pay you get reminders; your boss may be e-mailing you a change to the business proposal, may be telling you about a change of venue for the meeting tomorrow, and you may likewise have to contact the employees you are responsible for. Your boss could be sending you a message, in whatever form, to tell you to stop order on a product because the client changed their mind, and if you don’t get these messages, and act accordingly, you could cost the company money, ruin a business deal, at the very least you look like the employee who doesn’t have their act together. The creators of this documentary seem oblivious to the concept that many are as plugged in as they are because they have to be not because they always want to be. Unfortunately this is the lay of the land in the 21st century and the message to all is take it or leave it.