When it comes to talking technology and education, there’s no shortage of areas to dissect. From the impending extinction of jobs to the threat of identity theft and the psychological impact of online abuse, it is a field that asks questions where the answers are perpetually changing. Our ubiquitous devices and their grip on day to day living continue to be explored amongst theorists, futurists and the media. However, measured debate and the implications for learning can often be lost in the fog of hyperbole.
The area of dependence on technology and its repercussions for how students divide their attention and hone the vital skill of focus continues to evolve. As educators, we strive to adapt to an audience that processes, encodes and retrieves information in a variety of new ways. Far beyond my remit as a social researcher to speak on behalf of neuroscientists and biologists, however, the suggestion that the millennial’s brain has a different cognitive capacity to previous generations is a dangerous characteristic to assume.
Far too often there is a rush to roll out new tools and applications before their pedagogical benefit is genuinely considered.
We are still striving to strike the elusive balance between oversaturation of learning technologies and a reversion to a chalkboard age that doesn’t align with any of the fundamentals of a 21st Century education. Far too often there is a rush to roll out new tools and applications before their pedagogical benefit is genuinely considered.
Students may appear to be permanently tethered to glowing pixels, but it’d be hypocritical of adults to think that such attachment is the sole province of children and adolescents. And so to write this, I’ve left the house and my phone behind to go somewhere with no Wi-Fi, as I know that it will guarantee my concentration won’t be interrupted. Studies have shown that digital intrusions, no matter how brief or innocuous, can result in resumption lag, where the distracted individual can take several minutes to return to their primary focus after being disturbed (1). You could ask yourself how many other tasks you have attempted since you commenced reading this article, if you’ve even made it this far.
Therefore, if it is a challenge for us as adults, who have theoretically developed greater executive control, cognitive function and self-discipline through maturity, how does the adolescent sitting in a stuffy classroom after lunch stay focused on something they may not be intrinsically motivated by? Especially when the device that lures their attention outside of the classroom is the very tool that the school has prescribed for learning.
Yesterday, just before I was about to head out to dinner in Sydney, I attempted to update my phone. It crashed and nothing could not be retrieved. The ensuing anxiety that swept over me as I thought that I would now have to find the location without the aid of Google Maps, not be able to call those at the other end if anything went wrong and had no way of communicating if I were waylaid, was quite concerning. The feeling made me consider several aspects of my own failings at the hands of technology.
I have lived in Sydney for seven years and had never committed any key street names to memory as I’d always used satnav. Now, without it, these crucial details could not be called upon from any corner of my memory. If I did need to contact anyone, I wouldn’t know any of their numbers. About all that I could recall now would be my home number from when I was in primary school. As a result, I ended up at the wrong address and then had to go into an office to ask people to help me draw a map. Commentators can often get bogged down with nostalgia and wondering how many of these human connections are lost due to technology being the crutch we all too readily lean on, where once we just relied on other people. However, at the time, all I felt was stress for how much more challenging a simple trip to catch up with friends became.
For students who have an almost Pavlovian response to a vibration or ding in their pocket, this attachment to their device is very real. It’s the way that they communicate, discover and interact with the world. Just as it is for most adults. Therefore, to deny them a tool that is ostensibly an extension of themselves can lead to resistance greater than just lacking motivation for the next calculus exercise or remembering the rule to conjugate a verb. What we as educators and parents must do is recognise that we all rely on technology, albeit to varying degrees. Its merits are boundless, but so are its risks. Thinking that we will get to a level of comfort on ground that is forever shifting is naïve and it is imperative to adapt, or be left behind.
1. Carrier LM, Cheever NA, Rosen LD, Benitez S, Chang J. Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior. 2009;25(2):483-9.