Is the Internet making us stupid?

August 31, 2010 § 1 Comment

Many writers have proposed that new technologies have negative consequences for our abilities to think, learn and process information – often referring to very specific lab based experiments and typically ideas based on (sometimes pseudo) understandings of neuroscience.

In the Times two weeks ago Nicholas Carr suggested that, “We seem to have arrived at an important juncture in our intellectual and cultural history, a moment of transition between two very different modes of thinking. Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed and overlapping bursts – the faster the better.”

The problem I have with these kinds claims is that we never consider people as people – we always study them in a specific context doing a specific task.  Individuals live both in the real world and (to vary degrees) engage in the online one.  All of these experiences are likely to have some kind of influence on our brains and as a result our abilities to deal with information – not just those experiences that occur online.

We are all scanning and filtering more information online – but that is because we have to. We all can (and do) still fully engage with texts over a long period of time when we need or want to. The idea, as Nicholas Carr and others suggest, that this skill is somehow removed simply because we spend time surfing the web is not what I see in the students I teach or the young people I study in my research.

What we do need is more informed research and greater discussion between the disciplines.  Neuroscience has a lot to add in this debate – see, for example, Blakemore & Frith’s great book: the learning brain.

Is the Internet making us stupid? I doubt it…


Keep Moving Forward

August 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

The most creative use of technology  I have seen in a school in a very long time was in a local special school, where the headteacher and his staff makes sure that every child, no matter how severe their learning difficulties, are enabled to use sophisticated equipment freely and inventively. The sorts of thing that Charles Arthur was arguing for in his Guardian article last week on the closure of Becta, when he asked where, in our schools, is “the encouragement to use computers to create pictures, or films, or video games?” I think he was quite right to suggest that there is not enough of this in mainstream schools – and quite unfair to blame that on Becta.

Playing about is not high on the agenda of any school, any more than it was high on Becta’s agenda. But encouraging creative and productive uses of technology certainly was, as was trying to ensure that all young people – not just those in schools where technology had committed advocates – benefited from stimulating experiences of technology in their learning lives. Becta was a government quango and could be quite irritating at times, especially when it came to keeping its government masters happy (much good that did it). But the present government is quite wrong in claiming that productive uses of digital technologies are now sufficiently well embedded into mainstream schools to require no further expert intervention or advocacy.

Becta consisted of people who believed that technology can make learning more engaging, more productive, and more enjoyable. Those people did all they could to encourage and communicate positive developments in mainstream education, in the education of vulnerable children and of those with special needs, across a range of settings. Given all the negative stuff that often surrounds young people’s uses of technology, we might find ourselves missing Becta’s concerted and upbeat efforts quite a lot in the years to come.

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