Amused to Death: Why the Internet Should Be Kept Out of the Classroom

Writing in 1985, Neil Postman made the interesting observation that of the first fifteen U.S. presidents, many of them could walk down the street without being physically recognised yet they would be instantly identifiable by things they had written or speeches they had delivered. Today the opposite is true.

Postman saw 1980s America as a world that celebrated the transient and the superficial, where the power of the written word as a space to formulate and expand on complex arguments gave way to impressionistic understanding and surface engagement. He claims the 19th century was the apogee of human thought where the act of undistracted reading in particular represented “both their connection to and their model of the world.” He saw the advent of mass entertainment TV in the 1980s as a tipping point characterised by an over-saturation of information to the point of total distraction:

“Information is now a commodity that can be bought and sold, or used as a form of entertainment, or worn like a garment to enhance one’s status. It comes indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, disconnected from usefulness; we are glutted with information, drowning in information, have no control over it, don’t know what to do with it.”

What’s remarkable about Postman’s dystopian vision is that it was written before the advent of the Internet. The dizzying amount of information now produced daily would have been inconceivable to him yet many of its stupefying effects would have been instantly recognisable. If TV was having this effect on adults 30 years ago, what impact is the Internet having on young people today?

whitenoise

An important new study on student use of the technology has shown that students who have access to the Internet in the classroom are being distracted out of learning in any kind of meaningful way. Students who used laptops in lessons voluntarily logged into a proxy server which monitored their in-class behaviour and researchers found that “the average time spent browsing the web for non-class-related purposes was 37 minutes. Students spent the most time on social media, reading email, shopping for items such as clothes and watching videos.

An essential point to make here is that an adult using the Internet is not the same as a 15 year old using it. Most adults have developed schemas of knowledge that allow them to navigate the great highways of the Internet, identify subtle exits, negotiate fruitful side-roads and avoid potential dead ends. Asking kids to ‘research a topic on the Internet’ is like dropping a five year old on a motorway and expecting them to find their way home on their tricycle.

An older friend of mine who is a history teacher remarked to me recently that it was about 15 years ago that students who were asked to write assignments on Martin Luther King started handing in essays on the American civil rights leader who nailed 95 theses on a church door in Wittenberg in the 16th century and subsequently led the Protestant Church movement until his tragic assassination in 1968. Simply unleashing kids on the Internet with the vague justification of ’21st century skills’ is not just largely ineffective but a dereliction of duty.

Many techno-evangelists cite the vague concept of ‘creativity’ as a justification for the Internet in our classrooms but as Andrew Keen presciently pointed out ten years ago, as ‘truth’ becomes a relative term, not only is real creativity threatened but the wider implications for society are perhaps far more concerning:

This undermining of truth is threatening the quality of civil public discourse, encouraging plagiarism and intellectual property theft, and stifling creativity. When advertising and public relations are disguised as news, the line between fact and fiction becomes blurred. Instead of more community, knowledge, or culture, all that Web 2.0 really delivers is more dubious content from anonymous sources, hijacking our time and playing to our gullibility.

In a recent New York Times opinion piece, Darren Rosenblum noted that when teaching a unit on what he thought would be the engaging topic of sexuality and the law, his attempts to provoke discussion with his students was met with a “slew of laptops staring back” at him. He subsequently appealed to students not to bring laptops and created what he felt was a more human connection which in turn led to a better environment for learning: “Energized by the connection, we moved faster, further and deeper into the material.”

Laptops at best reduce education to the clackety-clack of transcribing lectures on shiny screens and, at worst, provide students with a constant escape from whatever is hard, challenging or uncomfortable about learning.

And that’s the thing about learning, it should be hard. It should be initially challenging and uncomfortable in the short term in order to be effective in the long term, but the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of Web 2.0 Internet has produced some disturbing effects on young people. As Simon Sinek has recently pointed out, there are some worrying trends in the millennial generation who are often characterised by chronically low self esteem, (facilitated he claims, by failed parenting strategies among other things) who now look to Facebook and Instagram approval to fix their lack of self-worth rather than human interaction and who are exhibiting behaviours that are profoundly addictive in nature:

It’s a bleak view of the future, often described as dystopian but for Neil Postman, there is an interesting distinction between the dystopian visions of Orwell’s ‘1984’ and Huxley’s ‘Brave New World.’ The former portrayed a bleak vision of oppressive state control in the form of Big Brother which sought to actively ban expression and limit human agency, however in ‘Brave New World’ there is a far more horrifying phenomenon at work:

In Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.

Technology has afforded us some incredible opportunities for education, such as comparative judgement or the JSTOR Shakespeare digital library and there are some good examples of purposeful, well structured environments but increasingly, we are suffering from what Sartre called ‘the agony of choice’ as we become more and more connected the the Internet of Things. Allowing kids to browse the Internet in a lesson and then expecting they will work productively is like bringing them to McDonald’s and hoping they’ll order the salad.

Techno-evangelists have sold us the Internet as a form of emancipation, freeing us from the ‘factory model’ of education (despite the fact the evidence for this is thin) but often technology in education seems to represent a solution in search of a problem that actually gets in the way of learning. Perhaps the most liberating and empowering thing we can do for young people today is to create a space for them where they can read the great works of human thought undisturbed and without distraction, for at least a short while.

 

 

References:

Postman, Neil (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 

Internet Use in Class Tied to Lower Test Scores

Logged In and Zoned Out: How Laptop Internet Use Relates to Classroom Learning

How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture and Assaulting Our Economy

Leave Your Laptops at the Door to My Classroom

A review of 1 on 1 laptops in education shows… that much more and better research is needed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

10 comments

  1. mikercameron

    Hi Carl,

    I’m not a great writer of blog comments so my apologies if I go on a bit and don’t make much sense.

    The research piece you use to underpin much of your argument is an interesting one. I think it highlights what any of us who have sat in a lecture theatre surrounded by students using laptops have often thought. And which of us hasn’t briefly glanced at an email notification as it floats up the screen. First stone, and all that. It’s good to see a well-designed and documented paper (albeit with a smallish sample) confirm what we thought would be true. That is, people get distracted easily. We’ve all seen it. Notes passed on pieces of paper, hand gestures across the room, boys (it’s usually always boys) looking for the rude words in the dictionary in library class. It’s just good to have confirmed by this study what we always thought was true – distraction reduces learning.

    However, it’s not all good news. I was surprised when reading your piece by three things really.

    The first is that the casual reader to your usually even-handed writing would walk away believing that the research was carried out on 15 year olds in a school classroom. Yes, I know you haven’t said that anywhere (and you have provided links to the paper), but the way you elide from “An important new study on student use of the technology has shown that students who have access to the Internet in the classroom are being distracted…” to “Students who used laptops in lessons voluntarily logged into a proxy server which monitored their in-class behaviour…” to “An essential point to make here is that an adult using the Internet is not the same as a 15 year old using it.” This does rather give the misleading impression that the research is about such children rather than it being about university students. As I’m sure you will agree the dynamic in a lecture theatre is very different from that in a classroom. Whilst it is always possible to draw some inferences between contexts, personally I would demur from using this research as part of the decision making process about how children should learn in a school classroom environment. There are far too many contextual differences.

    The second thing is the statement “…the ubiquitous and pervasive nature of Web 2.0 Internet has produced some disturbing effects on young people…”. The only support I can see for this statement is a video of a motivational speaker (I do look forward to you sharing some of his quotes – perhaps in the form of posters) ranting about the shortcomings of adults born in 1984. Now, most of the adults would have left school before their school actually had the internet so I’m not convinced it is to blame for the alleged shortcomings of this group.

    The third thing was this. You rightly say “Simply unleashing kids on the Internet with the vague justification of ’21st century skills’ is not just largely ineffective but a dereliction of duty.” However, there is a problem with this. The first is that (and please put away the Mitra quotes) this simply is not happening. Yes, I can find people who say the internet is great, 21st century skills are great etc, etc. I’ve even been in classrooms where the teacher has said “Now go on the internet for 5 minutes and see what you can find out about…”. I can find them easily. But I cannot find a school in this country which is “Simply unleashing kids on the Internet with the vague justification of ’21st century skills’…”. Goodness knows I’ve looked. As I’ve said many times before, I’m always up for a bit of hyperbole, but this goes further than that. It seeks to build truth from myth.

    Banning things requires better evidence than this.

    Regards
    Mike

    Liked by 3 people

    • Carl Hendrick

      Some very good points here Mike which I fully accept. These are really brief thoughts really, and some of it is personal judgement based on experience which I think is ok too 😉 A key problem here is that research on the impact of technology is notoriously problematic for obvious reasons and establishing causality is particularly difficult due to the all pervasive, ubiquitous nature of technology.

      However, I think this particular study is important because it is one of the first I know that has use objective measures to monitor Internet use, whereas the vast majority of studies I’ve seen are self reported. And also, as you say it is on psychology students which is a well documented problem in the field. But I do think you can make extrapolations.

      My main instinct is that the sacramental act of reading and the kind of deep engagement that comes from undistracted focus is becoming more and more difficult, (not just for kids!) But as you say, a lot more research is needed and knee-jerk, sensationalist are unhelpful. I certainly didn’t mean for it to come across that way. I also think technology can be hugely beneficial for learning, I guess I just think we need to think more carefully than ever about how we harness that.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. mikercameron

    Personal judgement is always acceptable in my house.

    I do think there is a difficulty that we are likely to get in here by throwing the attention onto technology. You are right about the paper, that it is the first (that I have seen) that uses a more accurate measurement than the usual self-reporting (although the actual methodology for measurement continues to have some inaccuracies as the paper makes clear, but at least these too are quantifiable). The danger is this – attention deficit due to computer use can thus be measured. So it becomes too easy to focus on this specific creator of attention deficit. We don’t actually know if it is the worst culprit. We also don’t know if the presence of laptops for some increases attention because it is keeping the user from a previous less-beneficial activity. The measurable becomes the focus. Another McNamara problem.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. monkrob

    Why cite a study done on university students and then generalize it to 15 year olds in high school?
    Dodgy logic.

    When it comes to ICT use, and anything else you do, “Know thy impact”.
    We have tracked our use of ICT and its effect on learning and have seen a positive effect.
    https://leadouteducation.com.au/2015/12/30/9/
    Of course letting millennials have unfettered access to the internet during every lesson would be stupid. Deeerrrr.
    No-one, not even the most ardent technophile, would countenance this form of instruction, yet your blog proposes it is common place. Effective teachers use ICT when it is more effective than not using it.
    It is not an all or nothing proposition. In any lesson at our school laptops, phones and other devices will be used, or not, when the teacher decides they will make learning more effective.
    The study you cite was from a lecture situation with adult learners where the teacher had no control.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. José Picardo

    Hi Carl,

    Interesting piece. Persuasively written. If only it were true.

    You begin and end by citing dystopian fiction. Very emotive. But, alas, it is fiction. It’s the equivalent of my quoting from a Star Trek script to support the adoption of more technology.

    Following this there is the suggestion that internet use by adults is ok because they know how to use it and the, frankly, strange conclusion that students should not use the internet because they don’t know how to use it well. What if they did know? What if we taught them?

    You then refer to an “important study” that shows that students don’t learn as well when the are distracted. Who knew? This builds on the assumption that when students in schools use the internet, they have unfettered access to it and free reign to use it when they like in lessons. in all the lessons I have observed as a middle and senior leader across several schools (and in my own lessons) this has almost never been the case. You are describing examples of bad practice and concluding that good practice can be generated by simply removing the technology. This logic is flawed. The answer to poor teaching is not to remove technology, it’s good teaching.

    Then you seek to associate effective technology use with “techno-evagelism” and “creativity”. Classic. Yes, there are techno-evangelists and plenty of Ken Robinson fans out there, but there are also a lot of folks who a) know their subject b) know how to teach it and c) know what tool is best for what purpose. The notion that all or most who use technology/the internet in lessons are woolly, happy-flappy techno-evangelist fits your narrative very well, but it is both uncharitable and inaccurate.

    Then you wade into the pseudo intellectual by evoking a lost “human connection” and embedding a video of a chap engaging in what Steven Pinker calls “the young-people-suck school of social criticism”. Entertaining but wholly unsubstantiated.

    Your last paragraph is the most persuasive but your conclusion is erroneous. As I observe on a daily basis, focused access to the internet based resources and to a curated corpus of knowledge that is available both in lessons and beyond does not detract from learning, it supports it. But, perhaps, we are doing something wrong.

    It appears to me that you have spent a great deal of effort describing the problem so that it fits your prescribed solution, i.e keeping the internet our of the classroom. I wonder what a scientist would say about that approach. I hope this is not how you have approached your PhD thesis! 😉

    And before you say that you were only trying to promote balance, take a look at the title of your piece again.

    Liked by 1 person

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