At least one professor worries about the intellectual impactof some student-directed uses of technology.
By the professor’s rule, students in the English classes of Dr. Mark Bauerlein at Emory University must take notes by hand. Laptops must be turned off, he says, to ensure students focus on what’s happening in the room, rather than on what’s floating around cyberspace.
“In half of those screens, they’re on Facebook,” Bauerlein says of the situation in other college classrooms. “They’re not taking notes, they’re doing e-mail.”
Note-taking is not the only low-tech learning in Bauerlein’s classes. He requires students to write the first draft of papers in long hand. He guides them in poring over the text of literature, one paragraph and one sentence at a time. He makes them memorize a sonnet by Shakespeare or a poem by Emily Dickinson and then recite the verse out loud — a throwback to old-school lessons in elocution.
In an age of instant communication via computers, cell phones and personal digital assistants, particularly among members of the millennial generation, Bauerlein contends slowing down learning on campus is “good for their mental equipment.” He says memorizing and reciting poetry, for instance, makes students pay attention to rhythm, tone of voice, metaphor and imagery.
Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory, is a leading campus critic of the overuse of technology — particularly for social networking and research — and says it hampers the intellectual growth and emotional maturity of college students of traditional age. He lays out his argument in a provocatively titled book, published last year, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30).
The book, and an article also published last year in The Atlantic magazine, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” marked a shift in the critique of information technology to its intellectual implications. Earlier in the decade, criticism had focused on ethics and how the Internet enables plagiarism and creates confusion about intellectual property rights.
Neither criticism, however, has slowed campus use of information technology as a tool to increase learning efficiency, enrich course content, expand access to classes and promote communication between classmates and with their instructors.
The Value of Campus Technology
Academic immersion into technology continues apace because it has shaped the learning styles of today’s students and has become fundamental to employers’ expectations in the workp l a ce , s a y s Dr. Julie K. Little, director of teaching, learning and professional development for EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit that promotes “the intelligent use” of information technology in higher education.
“I think technology supports a learning style and a way of learning that can lead to student success,” says Little.
Much of Bauerlein’s book focuses on student- directed uses of technology, rather than applications guided by colleges or their faculty members. Little calls his criticisms and similar ones important, though, because they can prompt institutions to reflect on whether they are making the best use of technology.
“I see them as being solo voices, rightfully out there, to make sure we keep check,” she says. “It’s always easy to be enamored with technology. If I’m just using it for technology’s sake, it’s not the right use.”
Asked the primary values of campus technology, Little cites three.
Course management systems, she says, allow professors to efficiently manage grades and other student data, update a syllabus and easily distribute academic materials, such as articles. Secondly, the digital arsenal of e-mail, chats and blogs allows students to have better communication with each other and their instructors.
Finally, she adds, “course content can be broadened across digital realms,” including “virtual labs,” “virtual field trips” and podcasts of lectures. Students can also generate material to reflect “their own understanding of what the content is about,” providing evidence of how much they have learned.
In addition, the growth of courses delivered completely or partly online has expanded student access to learning opportunities and enabled colleges to make more efficient use of their classroom space, according to Dr. Patsy Moskal, who evaluates online and “blended” coursework at the University of Central Florida.
At the Orlando university, for instance, 17 percent of credit hours are taken at least partly online, helping some students complete required coursework without staying enrolled for more than four years, Moskal says.
“My personal view is online courses are pretty much going to be a fact of life from now on,” she adds. “Good teaching is good teaching, independent of mode.”
‘An Anti-Intellectual Formula’
It may surprise many, but Bauerlein says he is not against technology on campus. “The tools themselves can all be knowledge- and taste-enhancing, and some kids use them that way,” he says.
But in his view, most college students who are millennials or ‘net geners’ use the Internet much more often for social networking, which he says stokes peer pressure, delays maturation and stifles intellectual growth.
“The peer pressure and the technology — that is an anti-intellectual formula,” he says. Bauerlein also complains that, “when you take away the Internet, more and more students are at a loss at how to start a research paper.” Little also disapproves of students depending too much on Google or other search engines and, as a result, turning in superficial classroom work.
Little sees a ready solution: Campus programs to acquaint students with library resources, librarians’ roles, copyright laws, acceptable references and permissible uses of reference material. Even before the digital era, she notes, colleges provided such “literacy programs,” and many have updated and expanded them to cover the new technology.
She also says professors should lay out their expectations that research must go beyond search engines and, if not, give lower grades to recalcitrant students.
Bauerlein says he deliberately chose The Dumbest Generation as a “mean title” because, “to spark conversation, you’ve got to be in people’s face.” Even so, he says fellow academics “don’t have much to say about” his provocative conclusions.
Some members of the National Association of Scholars share Bauerlein’s criticism of the impact of technology on collegiate learning.
“Higher education is destined to incorporate more and more online technology, and the students reaching college in the years ahead are destined to be less and less literate in the traditional sense,” NAS executive director Peter W. Wood wrote recently. “A great many of them will be expert at social networking and completely adept at clicking their way through the entire universe of linked this and that. But these skills will only entrench them more deeply in the proud ignorance and educational indifference that we see in many students today.”
On several occasions, Bauerlein’s book cites specific findings of studies done by EDUCAUSE, which promotes campus technology, to buttress his arguments.
Jarret Cummings, an EDUCAUSE spokesman, pointed to what he called a balanced view of technology in the organization’s 2005 book, Educating the Net Generation. A chapter co-authored by Central Florida’s Moskal credits the generation for its diversity and team orientation but also finds fault in “a comparative lack of critical thinking skills.” The co-authors do not, however, attribute that shortcoming to technology or any of its particular uses.
“If we knew that, we would know exactly what to do with technology,” Moskal says. “Technology is only a resource.”
Similarly, Little calls technology a tool, but describes its attributes, such as promoting communication and broadening content, as consistent with research on the elements of an effective college education. She also notes the tech-oriented learning style of today’s students, even as she embraces her own book-centric education.
“I always shy away from that kind of argument: Is it intellectually better?” Little says. Dr. Yong Zhao, professor of education and director of the Center for Teaching and Technology at Michigan State University, agrees. Of millennials, he says: “They’re not more stupid or less stupid, they’re just different.”
Whether people like it or not, Zhao says, the new technology is defining new skills and market demands for them. He cites the examples of effective salesmanship on eBay and the earning potential of designing buildings on a 3-D Web site.
“Can we judge these technologies based on their usefulness in the physical world? There is mounting evidence we can’t judge based on that” alone, Zhao says. “The virtual part is of value itself.”
On the other hand, if Bauerlein is right about the negative intellectual impact of how students actually use technology, one implication would be that the digital divide has been responsible for less of the education gap than had been projected. The author, who has previously written books about the Atlanta race riot of 1906 and civil rights, says he has not researched that specific issue but offers an impression.
“I think that was overplayed,” Bauerlein says.
Although he takes a slow, low-tech approach in his classes, Bauerlein does not think he risks his students being unprepared for the modern workplace. They get that exposure, he concedes, from his many colleagues who have gone full bore into campus technology.
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