Here is an interesting study that came out a few days ago. Using “biometric belts” and glasses with cameras inside, it followed 30 people, some of them digital natives and some digital immigrants, for 300 nonworking hours and counted their media habits. The natives, it turned out, switch media platforms 27 times per hour. (The rate was 35 percent higher than immigrants’ rate.)
The quick changes younger people make in leisure time worries advertisers because advertisers need eyes and ears to stay in one place in order to make their marketing effective. That’s the focus here. But, of course, educators have a different concern. If students move so quickly from one medium to another, if a few seconds of boredom send them running for stimulation elsewhere, they have a heckuva time reading chapters in textbooks, finishing The Scarlet Letter, writing the research paper, and other tasks that require focused concentration and hours of single-tasking.
Added to that, if the classroom offers the same tools that leisure time offers, then students have an inclination to engage with them in the same hurried, switching, stimulation-based way, even if the content passing through them is academic. This is one reason why Dan Willingham and David Daniel, psychologists at U.Va. and James Madison, respectively, published a lengthy letter in Nature recently questioning the full-on, absolute digitalization of schooling. The letter is behind a firewall, so here is part of it:
“. . . experiments with children in early grades more often show e-books equivalent to or even superior to traditional print. Younger children are offered simpler, narrative texts and are not asked to study and remember the content. The features that e-book readers make possible seem like an obvious boon for e-textbooks. Surely students will learn more if they can, for example, click a hyperlink that defines an unfamiliar word, or if they can use a mouse to rotate a complex molecule in three dimensions. But years of research on computer learning shows that these opportunities can backfire. Students who click on too many hyperlinks may lose the thread of what they are reading.Three-dimensional figures can distract and confuse students with poor spatial abilities to such an extent that they learn better with a simple picture. The networking capability of e-readers is another advantage that can cut both ways. Although students can collaborate more easily, Facebook and other social media distractions are just a click away and are utilized at far higher rates while studying by students using electronic textbooks remember the content.
“Electronic textbooks do offer substantial advantages over traditional printed text, such as the opportunity to make timely updates, adapt to learner preferences, and embed multimedia and learning activities—it’s one thing to read about the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it’s quite another to see a video of it. However, research shows that students likely do not interact with electronic textbooks as they do with traditional print, and the broader research base on multimedia learning indicates that considerable care must go into the design of special features to ensure that they augment learning rather than detract from it. There is no indication that publishers are investing the time and hard work required to leverage this information into a new generation of electronic textbooks. Rather, it seems that most are taking the pedagogical devices from print books and putting them in digital format, with little evidence that they positively affect learning.”
Note that Willingham and Daniel aren’t advising against digital tools, but only a more-circumspect adoption of them. Enthusiasm for those tools, however, both in governments at Federal and state levels and in private foundations, is outrunning caution, in spite of the massive expense of such programs.
My own concern is that as digital tools speed up the learning process, certain experiences and capacities will diminish. This is particularly true in the humanities, where, sometimes, slow understanding is a necessity. Take, for instance, those sequences in the history of film which are slow and deliberate, but which are nonetheless central expressions of the art form.
When, in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Scotty follows Madeleine from her apartment (it’s in the Mark Hopkins Hotel) across town, driving slowly behind her, parking in an alley behind a department store, spying on her inside, then watching her in a cemetery at Mission Dolores, then heading up to the Palace of the Legion of Honor . . . things move ploddingly, quietly.
Or, in Antonioni’s L’Avventura, when Anna disappears on the island and the others search for her here and there, the camera panning ever-so-slowly across the sea, the characters barely speaking to one another, . . .
Or, the opening of Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, when the camera slides with ponderous lassitude up one corridor and down another in the chateau as a narrator mumbles and repeats phrases about the actions to come . . .
If young people have been conditioned by years of multi-tasking and media-jumping, they have a hard time appreciating the slower representations. It’s hard to make their minds sit still. Yes, some learning is facilitated by digital tools. But there is no substitute for standing 10 feet in front of a painting of Thomas More by Hans Holbein and looking at it, one observer and one art object in an uncomplicated encounter, the one eyeing the other slowly and consciously, focusing on color and arrangement and contrast.
If we find that slow reading, slow seeing, slow thinking, and slow judging are deteriorating among the students, then we have a duty. It is not to oppose the digital tools, but to insert into the curriculum exercises and experiences that cultivate a different habit, a slow-down of apprehension. The inability to decelerate and join the search for Anna for 10 minutes, to examine the gilded corridors of Marienbad, . . . this is a deficiency.
ADDENDUM: For an upcoming discussion of digital technology and education, Fordham Foundation will host this panel on Thursday morning: