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Negatively Charged: Thoughts on Pushing Technology

  • Written by Andrew Elliott McBurney
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I wrote this in one of my graduate courses in March 2012, as a reflection inspired by a video about Grown Up Digital, by Don Tapscott.  Yes, it's an ornery, get-off-my-lawn kind of rant.  There's a reason I call my blog "Paleoteacher".  Caveats aside, we have to be smart about how we adopt and implement technology in the classroom and in our professional lives:
Sometime late last century, I found myself watching a pedestrian presentation by a textbook rep touting the pictures, graphics, sidebars, and colorful fonts of his company’s book, because, you know, what with the MTV generation and all . . . .
I’d heard this argument before.  Or rather, a part of an argument.  Or rather, an incomplete thought offered in the hope that the listener will connect the dots in some meaningful way to make the speaker’s point for him.  We know what the argument is supposed to be: the “MTV generation” is much more “tuned in” to a rapid-fire audio/visual extravaganza, and as such, any classroom materials must accommodate the resultant attention-deficient teenagers.  But, don’t we want them to be able to concentrate?  Shouldn’t we teach them in such a way that it promotes the ability to focus?  And how exactly does colorful stuff scattered all over the pages of the textbook help?
Actually, the textbook rep was a generation off—my generation was actually the “MTV generation” (meaning, we still remember when they played music videos).  The generation I was teaching at the time grew up with reward-center-satisfying video games and computers that my generation could only have dreamed about—in fact, did dream about, in fact, later invented—which, nevertheless, are paleolithic by today’s standards, 15 years hence.  Later members of this generation are even more plugged in, having grown up with mp3 players, smartphones, and tablet computers.  There are many who argue and believe very strongly that this native familiarity with digital immersion bestows upon today’s kids very important skills and abilities that will help shape the future.
However, we should ask (but we don’t always), what exactly are these skills and abilities, and of what value are they?
Most video games only involve stimulus and response: recognize particular patterns of colors and shapes and respond in an appropriate way.  It is true that many games require creativity, problem-solving, strategy, or tactics (for example, the SimCity games, the Myst trilogy, or sports games); but they do so in a virtual (non-actual-human) environment.  Furthermore, the chatrooms of network games offer a shield of anonymity that engenders decidedly inhuman behaviors: racist outbursts and threats of violence are not uncommon.  Players may even neglect their own, immediate realities: witness the fate of a 3-month old baby who, in March 2010, died because her parents were too busy to feed her while raising a virtual daughter in a game called Prius Online.   Video games, at best, may impart some skills and abilities; but seriously, if you were on a football team, would you want your quarterback to have trained exclusively on Madden NFL?  Would you trust the community planning of your city to a devotee of SimCity?  In the deserts of Afghanistan, would you want your lieutenant to have learned leadership and tactics from Fallout 3 alone?
What about skills at Internet searches?  Tell you what, hold an online scavenger hunt competition between a 16-year-old, and someone who grew up searching for information in a card catalog or the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature (remember that one?) and see who wins.  Do you want someone working for you whose research task ends in 15 minutes with the matter-of-fact observation, “I can’t find anything on Google”?
(And here’s a scary thought: what happens to our net/digital/tech-savvy culture if our satellites get shot down in the next war?  Can you function without GPS?  Have a road map in your car?)
Yes, things were more complicated and less convenient back-in-the-day, but we used our brains to make up for it.  I know, I know . . . they aren’t learning less, just different.  Fine.  Lest we be called Luddites by the heralds of the (latest) digital revolution, then we should also ask, what jobs of the future would require these skills and only these skills? (After all, who wants to be in a position to tell our state education agency or our legislature that technology is not the be-all and end-all of education?)  Video game tester?  How many can we funnel into that occupation?  Will work product consisting of Google searches and Wikipedia entries allow a business intelligence analyst to hold down a job?
All new technology is touted as “revolutionary.”  Some of it truly is.  However, we should not let ourselves get carried away by the rhetoric of those pushing it for a profit.  There are plenty of good ideas already out there for the appropriate (and innovative, and cost/time-saving) use of technology, like only having physical meetings when necessary, while taking care of notices and regular bulletins through e-mail or blogs.  There are also some good guidelines that are finally coming into play, such as those related to appropriate use of PowerPoint presentations.  In any case, we should not let ourselves be so impressed with how adept kids are with technology, that we no longer see the need for all the other important skills and abilities that are not dependent on the flow of electrons.