You may receive the same kinds of messages that I do once in a while. A fellow faculty member distributes a mass email message or stands up at a faculty meeting to complain that
I am disturbed by the blind assumption on the part of the powers-that-be that technology is an unmixed blessing that we should be promoting in every way possible....the way in which many people interact with computers fosters a short attention span and the tendency to flit casually from one thing to another. Combine this with the common habit of "multitasking" (text-messaging, listening to an iPod, and playing computer games, etc., while doing homework), and what you have is a culture in which many students have no understanding of the concepts of sustained concentration and deep thought.
The key word here is flit, not one that we use often at the academy. This critic makes a good point -- that new technologies affect the ways we work and think, and not always for the better. (This point was made 45 years ago by Marshall McLuhan, who wrote, "we shape our tools, and then our tools shape us." He was referring to television at the time, but a parallel argument can be made for the current crop of digital devices that our culture has adopted.) To "flit causally from one thing to another" is the opposite of the concept of flow, which in its most recent coinage refers to an empowered state of work where our ideas and our production move along steadily and continuously. Flow is a positive concept that results in deep thinking and notable work, while flit remains pejoratively negative. Definitions are appended to this article.
The new technologies can move us in either direction. They provide tools that enable and support the state of flow that we hope our students achieve while they are studying, but these same tools also allow them to flit as never before from one thing to another. We seem to see more flitting than flowing on the part of our technology-using students. So how to we respond to these perceptive critics?
Responding to our critics
First, we should agree with them.
You are right. The new digital technologies raise important questions that deserve serious and careful consideration by our faculty. Whether we like it or not, these technologies are already with us, in our laboratories, in our libraries, in our studios, and in our students' pockets.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, our students are working online before they get to college. 94% of them connect daily, 97% use computers regularly in high school, and most own their own computers. And a glance through the hallways at our school will show you that our students own and enjoy the three keys to digital information and communication:
- a personal computer,
- an iPod, and
- an Internet connection.
Even among the faculty, more and more academic research and publication is carried out with this same set of tools, by our colleagues in the United States and abroad.
You are perceptive to point out that contemporary technology is a fact, and like technology across the ages it offers extraordinary possibilities as well as seductive risks. The question for us as educators is not whether to jump or not to jump into the deep end of the digital pool; the question is how to take best advantage of the useful aspects of the new kinds of interactions that the technologies make possible.
Unfortunately, the first to take advantage of the new technologies have been the entertainment and advertising industries. And I think you will agree with me that their mission is advanced chiefly through short, thin, provocative, one-way communications that appeal to low-level human instincts. This is why we associate the new technologies with distraction and short attention spans on the part of our students.
The good news is that the higher education community is beginning to provide a countervailing force to the commercial marketplace, as we learn to harness these same technologies for serious academic purposes.
- The University of Michigan has just put its millionth book online -- the entire text, every word, fully searchable by students and faculty from their desktops. Already this accessibility has allowed researchers to uncover new relationships and forge new ideas.
- The Perseus Project, accomplished by a consortium of classics faculty from all over the country, has succeeded in providing the scholarly community a rich online trove of texts, artifacts, maps that has enabled new forms of teaching and research.
- Right here at our school, online courses enable graduate students to study with us and earn a degree even when their work assignment takes them out of the city. They participate in their seminars by videoconference, they access their readings over the web, and engage in online collaborative work with their peers.
But not all schools follow such a careful path. Instead some schools respond to the technology revolution simply by supplying technology to students, and hoping for the best.
- The University of Missouri School of Journalism requires every one of their students to own a personal computer, and supports their purchases.
- Abilene Christian University provides an iPhone to each student on which is loaded all of his or her academic materials, schedules, requirements, readings and references.
- Duke University provided an iPod, unsolicited, to every freshman, in hopes that they and the faculty would discover some interesting academic uses for them.
This is not enough. At our school, we must be sure to ask the pressing questions that match any use of new technologies to the standard of enabling a higher quality of learning for our students. At the same time, we must avoid the opposite temptation to condemn technology out of hand. It offers us and our students new pathways to learning that enhance our core mission.
Teachers have learned over the years that some of the traditional modes of teaching do not yield as much learning as their technically-assisted alternatives. And so we incorporate these new technologies into our work. Imagine an art history lecture without slides, or music history without recordings, or an engineering lab without a calculator. Students learn more when their teachers bring the appropriate technology to bear on the subject at hand.
We need to do the same with the latest crop of technologies, which are beginning to prove their promise.
- A recent study at SUNY Fredonia found better exam results from a group of students who learned psychology through an illustrated podcast, than from a group that learned by attending a lecture of the same content. (Computers & Education, Volume 52, Issue 3, April 2009)
- The faculty at the Hunter College School of Education, who require digital video recordings of every student teacher, have found that nothing else allows them to hone in on their own practice of teaching, or to assess themselves for progress in that practice, or allow them to see multiple examples of ways of teaching.
These examples show how a careful application of technology embodies the most powerful way in which we can help students learn effectively - and that's surely the standard we are after. The question for our faculty to consider is How can we best apply technology to the task of serious thinking, problem solving, skill- development, communicating, constructing and imagining that we know are important to our students?
How can the new technologies shift from a force to flit, to an enabler of flow in their learning?
flit I flit I
verb ( flitted , flitting ) [ intrans. ]
move swiftly and lightly : small birds flitted about in the branches I figurative the idea had flitted through his mind. dragonflies flitted across the pond dart, dance, skip, play, dash, trip, flutter, bob, bounce.
flow I flō I
verb [ intrans. ]
(esp. of a fluid) move along or out steadily and continuously in a current or stream : from here the river flows north I a cross-current of electricity seemed to flow, a good flow of water movement, motion, current, flux, circulation; trickle, ooze, percolation, drip; stream, swirl, surge, gush, rush, spate, tide.