Reflections on the case against technology integration

Over the past several months I’ve been investigating the case against technology integration in classrooms – or more broadly, the case against internet and smartphones. Because I’m earning my master’s degree in education with a technology focus, I thought it was important to be able to address concerns and opposition to what I believe to be the great benefits of technology.

Throughout my study, I read Alone TogetherThe Shallows, and Last Child in the Woods. I also kept an eye open to articles and conversations in the education world either supporting or countering technology integration. At core, these readings did not change my beliefs about educational technology, but they did expose me to some fascinating research and trends that those in the field are currently exploring. My core belief is that there is no silver bullet or single answer in education. Every student learns differently and every teacher is most effective in a different way. The tool should fit the task, whether that tool is an iPad or a riverbed.

I’m worried to learn about the ways that the internet may impact our ability to do deep, sustained reading, as I learned in The Shallows. I’m concerned that the internet may push people apart rather than draw them together, as Shelly Turkel argues in Alone Together. I don’t want my children to be more connected to their tablets than to nature, as in the future painted by Richard Louv in Last Child in the Woods. However, these worries don’t outweigh my faith that the internet can help connect disenfranchised youth, that online access can spark interest and availability of higher education, or that real-audience tasks can invigorate reading and writing skill-building. I don’t think it has to be a case of one or the other, of unplugged versus plugged in, of online versus off. We can support our students in ways that make sense for each of them, and blanket acceptance or refusal of any tool doesn’t make sense for all students.

I appreciate the increased awareness I’ve gained over the course of my study, and I hope it will serve me well going forward. I can be more mindful of turning to the internet thoughtlessly, or how Im’ incorporating play in nature into my classes. I can be sure to balance the connections my students build online with the connections they’re making face to face. Throughout it all, I stand steady in my belief that we need to get to know our students well as individuals and then work from there. Relying on my core beliefs and balancing what I know about the drawbacks of screen dependence, I think I will serve my students well.

Review: Last Child in the Woods

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit DisorderLast Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

We are separated from nature and it’s dangerous to our children. So goes the thesis of Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, a critique of our society’s relationship with nature and a guide to how we can reconnect. Louv describes how unstructured play in nature has given way to regimented, supervised, and risk-free activities like organized sports that take place on artificial turf. Free play has become criminalized or outlawed, parents are overprotective and live in fear of the unknown. Louv acknowledges the legitimate reasons why these cultural norms developed, but pushes back on them with evidence of the benefits of quality time spent in nature – and dangers of times spent without. “Permanent disconnection of the young and nature,” he says, “is not inevitable.”
Throughout this well-researched, broad examination, Louv looks at the micro solutions to the child/nature separation as well as the macro societal changes that need to be made. He offers ways to talk about nature to our children or our students, and ways to reimagine the way that cities and towns across the country are designed, engineered and built. Through the lenses of law, religion, school, civil engineering, design, and environmentalism, Louv covers in great detail the depth of the problem – and ways to fix it.
Louv uses a few psychological theories or diagnoses to explain what happens when we remove ourselves from nature. These emotionally resonant examples, such as “nature deficit disorder” or “cultural autism,” help drive home the point that nature is a powerful force in our lives and its impact runs deep into our hearts and minds. Louv also uses beautiful imagery of the natural places in our collective memory, like the edge of the vacant lot, the natural fort under the trees in the cul-de-sac. These descriptions sent me back to thoughts of my childhood and the ways in which I interacted with nature on a daily basis in my suburban yard. I think this is a brilliant part of Louv’s approach: we must reconnect to the value we experienced of nature in order to reprioritize similar value for our children.
In parallel to learning more about the impacts of technology on our lives, I’ve also been learning about systems thinking, and Louv sketches a complete picture of the system which leads to a deficit of nature in our lives. Because he carries out his thesis in so many detailed and varied examples, Last Child in the Woods avoids shaming or blaming any particular group (parents, educators, politicians) for the problem. Instead, the book is solution-oriented – offering folks in any role ways to start small in making a change. I appreciated Louv’s emphasis on practical advice to parents and institutions. While it can be overwhelming to think about global warming or the degradation of natural spaces in our country, I felt settled to think of small, concrete steps I can begin to take, in my classroom and my community. One classroom approach with which I was already familiar was place-based education, especially through the lens of David Sobel. Louv sketches out ideas and examples of how schools around the country are connecting with place rather than through the internet to develop children’s skills and helping them learn endangered knowledge of how the natural world works.
Reading Last Child in the Woods wraps up my study of the case against technology integration in schools. I expected to feel defensive while reading this book, but I actually agree with Louv on his opinion of computers: “The problem with computers isn’t computers – they’re just tools; the problem is that overdependence on them displaces other sources of education, from the arts to nature.” Throughout my study of the case for and against technology integration, I’ve come to firmly stand behind the “both/and.” Computers are both incredible tools for education, and impediments in the way of learning. Interactions with nature are both essential for development and not the only path toward healthy development. This echoes what I believe about teaching as a whole: there is no silver bullet, single strategy or tool that works or doesn’t work for everyone. After my study, I feel optimistic about balancing my passion for educational technology with all that’s valuable about the unconnected world.

View all my reviews

“Smarter Than You Think”

Looks like there’s a dissenting voice to Nicholas Carr’s findings in The Shallows: I just saw this interview with Clive Thompson, whose new book is called Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better.

It sounds like the two authors agree that technology is changing our brains – but based on this interview, Thompson believes we gain more than we lose. I’m interested in this concept of “ambient awareness,” especially in my work as a therapeutic educator. Does interpreting social media updates help us interpret face-to-face social behavior? Does the greater stream of information translate into a greater understanding of others’ thoughts and feelings?

I’m curious to see whether Carr and Thompson use any of the same data to reach different conclusions. Adding Smarter Than You Think to my to-read list.

Book review: The Shallows by Nicholas Carr

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas G. Carr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After reading Shelly Turkel’s Alone Together I wanted a more detailed look into how technology use actually impacts our biological makeup, not just our social interactions. The Shallows by Nicholas Carr provided me this perspective and helped me to understand the nuts and bolts of how reading and socializing on the internet impacts the way our brains function.

Carr places networked computers in the same lineage as the clock, the map, and the printing press. He describes a human history wherein technology alters the physical networking of our brains and changes the ways we interact with the world and with each other. In this sense, the internet is just one more technology in this constant parade of change. I appreciated how Carr highlighted historical criticisms of technology that we would now consider to be very basic – such as the book. The book is commonly seen as objectively “good,” but Carr reflects that around the advent of the book, people had concerns about the negative impacts of books on society, such as a poet who wrote of the “confusion” and “froth” in the “ocean of print” (p. 71). The inclusion of these critical perspectives addressed one of my biggest objections to Turkel’s Alone Together – current technology is not isolated, nor is the backlash to it, and this book compares these patterns not just to developments over the author’s life, but over the collective human experience.

Using a combination of behavioral and neurological studies as his evidence, Carr clearly lays out the case that frequent internet use, particularly reading online, changes the pathways in our brains, causing a shallower understanding of information and a diminished capacity to make meaning. Humans developed deep reading skills when language became written, and now as language becomes hyperlinked, we develop a different type of skill that is visual and spatial. We become better at skimming and quickly making decisions as we practice this more. As Carr puts it: “we are evolving from being cultivators of personal knowledge to being hunters and gatherers in the electronic data forest” (p. 138). Carr’s argument is complex and the evidence rich; to abbreviate it here wouldn’t do it justice – and is part of why I highly recommend this read to anyone interested in teaching and learning with the brain in mind.

I read most of this book on weekends at a cabin by a lake. There was no cell phone service and weak wireless internet. I read this text as a physical book, laying in a hammock, without a real sense of what time it was or how long I had been reading. While typically I am on the side of defending the internet, espousing its benefits, and pushing for its integration in our schools, I couldn’t help but feel connected to Carr’s message as I swung on the hammock. My brain is practiced in deep reading because that’s what I grew up doing, but as we continue to push for internet use in schools, we push them to practice skimming, evaluating, and decision-making. I would love for everyone to have both of these abilities and to balance them based on the context of the task at hand. Carr is in agreement – we shouldn’t revert to a pre-internet era, nor could we. Yet we should be thinking more intentionally about how and when we unplug, and creating time for ourselves and our children to be quiet and meditative.

After finishing the Shallows I’m moving on to reading Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods to think more about that quiet and meditative space in our lives.

View all my reviews

Counterpoint

In my last post I linked to a book review of Shelly Turkle’s Alone Together in which I questioned her assertion that in the age of paper, people didn’t read off-task documents during meetings. Afterwards, I received the following email from my dad, who’s been in business settings for far longer than I’ve been alive:

Turkle is right.  It was socially unacceptable in the world of paper for someone to read their printed email or other documents during a meeting.  Bored or not, your attention was required and you couldn’t/wouldn’t take out something to read during the meeting.  We’ve had a massive etiquette breakdown in the move to mobile.  People view their time as more valuable than the time of everyone else put together.  “I don’t care what you want to talk about I am going to ignore you and do what I think is important”.

What do you think? What’s your experience with this? Are we romanticizing the past, or has there been a massive breakdown in etiquette?

Up next: I’m currently reading The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr. After Turkle, I’m enjoying a more scientific approach to the topic.

The Good Old Days

This concept has been on my mind as I explore the idea that technology lessens our relationships, hurts our brains, and brings a whole host of other negative impacts. Randall Monroe of the webcomic XKCD lets the primary sources speak for themselves:

 (source) 

I don’t think we should ignore the potentially negative impacts of progress and technology. We should examine their impacts, implement tools intentionally, and be mindful of how we are affected. But let’s stop talking about the “good old days.”

We Are Not Alone

I became a vegetarian because of my love of books.

You see, my favorite author is Jonathan Safran Foer, who hooked me with Everything is Illuminated and made me a fan for life with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. After a long hiatus from publishing, Foer released Eating Animals a few years ago. While I’ve been ambivalent about eating meat for a long time, I was willfully ignorant about factory farming and other reasons that might push me over the fence, away from being a carnivore. However, the chance to read more from my favorite author was too tantalizing to pass up – so I read Eating Animals. I haven’t eaten meat since (with one exception for a burger made from a cow my brother raised, slaughtered and processed – an exception of which I think Foer would approve).

So this morning when I opened the New York Times to see that Foer had written an article about the drawbacks of our connected world, I was a bit worried. If Foer, an author whose work and integrity I trust, made a convincing enough argument – what would be the consequences in my life?

Of course, after reading the excerpt from Foer’s commencement speech at Middlebury College, I’m not going to turn in my smartphone or my Chromebook. But in conjunction with some other reading I’ve been doing lately, I’m definitely thinking about how to balance the authentic aspects of my life, whether they be digital or face-to-face.

In the article based on his speech, Foer describes online communication as a “diminished substitute” of true, face-to-face communication, placing texting as one step in a lineage that starts with the telephone and travels through answering machines and emails. To him, each step was “not created to be improvements upon face-to-face communication, but a declension of acceptable, if diminished, substitutes for it.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this argument, and while logically it appears to make sense at the surface, there are some underlying assumptions that give me discomfort. The primary one is that face-to-face, real-time conversation is holier than all other forms of communication and the ultimate form that all people should use. You’ll never find me arguing that face-to-face communication isn’t necessary, but I also don’t think that it is necessarily better or more authentic than other forms of communication. Just as those of us who advocate for educational technology often discuss the appropriateness of a tool for a given task, I think we should also appreciate many forms of communication for their appropriateness to a task.

Online communication and social networking provide opportunities for those who have traditionally been marginalized or ostracized to connect authentically with others. Think about a gay teenager who is the ‘only one’ in his rural high school, finding a supportive community of those like him online. Think of a person with autism for whom face-to-face conversation produces debilitating anxiety, able to use non-synchronous communication to engage with others. Think of the many examples around the world of social media being used to bring together people for life-changing causes, or to spread messages far beyond one person’s typical reach.

Foer says he worries “that the closer the world gets to our fingertips, the further it gets from our hearts.” Our ever-present networks make it easier to be absent from human interactions and we run the risk of leaving one another alone. In the examples I describe, however, I believe that the network truly makes us less alone. If these online interactions lead to face-to-face connections, that’s wonderful. But if not, I think the tool has still served its purpose – true connection between humans.

In the end, I agree with Foer’s beautiful words about the need to be there for one another:

We live in a world made up more of story than stuff. We are creatures of memory more than reminders, of love more than likes. Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.

I agree that it is messy and complicated and difficult to be in relationship with others. I just think we can do this messy and complicated work, and truly be present for each other, even if we are not together in the flesh.

What do you think? Does the increased use of technology to communicate make us more alone, or more together? I think we hang in the balance and each of us must decide for ourselves how to live in this messy and complicated world. Foer may not have changed my food choices with this article, but I hope that his words do change my intellectual diet, and that I become more conscious of how I am authentically present for others in my life.