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When are Digital Media and Tools WRONG for Teaching and Learning?

by Hugh Beaulac on January 2, 2017

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I think Hugh Beaulac raises some interesting questions in this article that are important to consider. The idea that digital resources might be more productively applied for some subjects and counter-productive for others is certainly worthy of a closer look. We know student age is an important consideration in determining when digital resources might not be appropriate, but what about other factors we should be considering when deciding for or against the use of digital resources, and what can we learn from brain science about this? I’d love to hear from others who have explored these considerations. – KW

Whenever you learn something new or experience something, it encodes in your brain by subtle changes in the strength of connections between neurons.
– Dr. Iroise Dumontheil, Birkbeck University

Given that students spend hours online, it is worth considering the impact digital media has on their brains and their learning capabilities.

Today students belong to Generation Z with strong media habits and preferences playing a central role in their lives: the 2015 study from Common Sense Media reveals that teens spend about nine hours engaging with digital media each day. CEO of Common Sense Media, James Steyer confirms that students “spend far more time with media technology than any other thing in their life. This is the dominant intermediary in their life.”

Neuroscientist Susan Greenfield (Oxford University) is sure that digital technologies reshape human brains, and educators should consider this impact when choosing teaching techniques and tools for their lessons. According to Susan, “the brain adapts to its environment”, no matter if this environment is positive or negative. At the same time, Australian philosopher Dave Chalmers believes that “technology is increasing our capacities and providing us with newly sophisticated ways of thinking.” So, if teens’ environment is highly digital today, it’s important to consider how to organize teaching and learning activities accordingly.

To do that, first, we should understand what happens to a brain affected by digital media. Armed with this knowledge, educators will be able to explore new ways of responding to it.

What Happens to Thinking Abilities

It seems that digital media changes the way students think. One study says that reading on digital platforms makes youngsters more focused on “concrete details rather than the big picture.” Also, the fact is that we generally don’t read but instead scan information online, looking for details that would help us understand whether it’s worth our attention to explore content further.

With that in mind, teachers of STEM disciplines might want to use digital media in classrooms for providing students with things like studies on economics, links to math resources, research on physics, statistics, etc. The brain’s ability to separate concrete details may help when exploring facts, learning formulas and scientific relationships, etc.

At the same time, it would seem better to use non-digital platforms for teaching subjects where abstract thinking is crucial. Mary Flanagan, Professor in Digital Humanities at Dartmouth, who conducted the research admitted that “compared to the widespread acceptance of digital devices, as evidenced by millions of apps, ubiquitous smartphones, and the distribution of iPads in schools, surprisingly few studies exist about how digital tools affect our cognition.” She says that sometimes it is beneficial to foster abstract thinking, and it’s crucial for educators to find this balance while teaching.

What Happens to Attention

Digital media encourages multitasking: students have dozens of tabs open, switch between them quickly, read several articles simultaneously while chatting with friends via several messengers, listening to some podcasts, or “watching” YouTube videos background. That’s all well and fine, but such multitasking affects the brain’s learning systems and makes it harder to sustain attention and think deeply about one thing.

According to journalist Nicholas Carr, “the price we pay for being constantly inundated with information is a loss of our ability to be contemplative and to engage in the kind of deep thinking that requires you to concentrate on one thing.” To help students decrease such impact of digital media, it would seem prudent to filter the information you give them and don’t encourage multitasking at your lessons. That would allow students to devote more brain space to deep thinking on the subject.

What Happens to Memory

Digital media is believed by many to decrease our ability to remember facts and information. To be more specific, young people typically don’t work as hard to remember things as those raised “pre-Google”, since they know they can google it anytime and get answers. Researchers call it “cognitive offloading” and say that “the tendency to rely on things like the Internet as an aide-mémoire, increases after each use.”

The more students rely on the Internet to support their memory, the less they try to form it. It doesn’t mean educators should forbid digital media in classrooms, and it doesn’t mean the Internet makes youngsters dumber and unable to remember things. But cyberspace does often provide too many different opinions, contradictory facts, and fakes; as John Suler says, it “gives the illusion of consensual validation.”

So, the challenge for educators here is teaching critical thinking to students. That can help them analyze digital media and decide on the information to move from conscious mind to long-term memory.

Beware of “Screen Addiction”

Spending so much time online, students adapt to digital environments and they can shape the way their minds work. It’s a complex process, and some studies suggest it can turn into screen addiction leading to a loss of cognitive control. For instance, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras writes that digital tools “affect the brain’s frontal cortex – which controls executive functioning, including impulse control – in exactly the same way that cocaine does.” Should we be making students aware of this potential issue and looking for red flags warning us when it may be occurring?

So we see that there are many challenges, along with opportunities, presented by digital resources and how they relate to the process of learning. We seem to have a long way to go to evolve and hone our understanding of the most useful situations and techniques for leveraging the growing body of digital tools and resources in the educational settings.

 

About 

Hugh Beaulac is a tech geek, bookworm, and blogger behind MC2. A huge fan of math and other STEM disciplines, Hugh writes on corresponding topics to reveal the beauty of technology for others.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Lacey Tomlinson January 12, 2017 at 12:59 pm

I think this raises quite a few great points that I didn’t necessarily consider when it comes to using digital media. The idea of a student getting distracted isn’t new to me but really hit home while reading this (it probably did so even more because while reading I even was distracted by the spinning globe that is part of the page). Ultimately I think choosing to use any kind of technology comes down to why – is it making the lesson better (enhancing the experience) or just easier?

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