Twittering and Tweeting: A Sticky Web for Schools

by Mr. Hugh Burke

There has been much chatter and enthusiasm, lately, regarding technology and education. Recent headlines in local papers featured students using twitter in their English classes, and a local College doing away with textbooks, in favour of electronic books on iPads. Provincially, there has been much talk of using digital technology to support “personalized learning”. There is much enthusiasm over the “promise” of social media in learning and education. Last year, the Vancouver Sun ran a feature on an elementary school and its enthusiasm for iPads in one or two classes.

That seems to fit some data that is emerging: In February, 2011, the average number of texts by American teenagers was about 3300 per month. But youth are not the largest users of digital technology: Adults, with their computers and phones and banking and online movies and so on, are larger users than are the youth. The idea that youth are “digital natives” is a silly one, when one looks at usage over time. The danger is that some people are suggesting that technology should change what we learn, and how we learn. We are, as a society, engaging in a huge social experiment with more enthusiasm than thought. Just a few weeks ago, Maclean’s Magazine ran an article on the significant decline in the ability of young people to perform simple physical and mechanical tasks, from tying shoes to tightening screws. The loss of physical abilities, of course, is the visible symptom of the loss of particular kinds of knowledge and cognition.

Certainly, there are some advantages to computer use in our schools. However, there are also some significant disadvantages. For example, we know that multimedia presentations seem more interesting than focused lectures; we also know that retention from the lecture is greater than that from multimedia. Many of us like the news shows that feature many pictures, and text rolling across the bottom of the screen, yet we should also be aware that we remember less from such shows than from old-fashioned news read by an Anchor, without constant interruption. We learn more from sustained attention, but are engaging in constant distraction.

It may be a great thing not to have to remember a lot of information, on the grounds that we can just “find it” on the “web”, but we should also be aware that such a process undermines our ability to think deeply, as we have little stored knowledge with which new information can connect. Creativity depends, in large part, on knowing things in ourselves, knowing deeply. With this knowledge, creativity arises from encountering a problem that needs solution; it does not consist of random new ideas. Memory matters.

People who spend a lot of time online read almost as much as those who read books, but the reading is different. It is not as constant or focused. The eye moves in a different pattern on a website, and sustained attention is much more difficult. Writing on a computer is very much different than writing by hand – not worse, but very different. The hand, the eye, and the brain work together in a different way, and from what we know from neuroploasticity, the brain develops very differently in a world of social media, and in a world where letters do not have to be fashioned by hand, and written work needs to be carefully written and sustained.  This difference may include the developed ability to hold a sustained argument, and then to be able to evaluate it based on what one already knows: this is the centre of Western thought, and we will ignore it at our peril.

There are those who claim that we are moving into a post-literate time, an age where reading is less like reading a book, and more like reading chatter, gossip, or other forms of conversation – it is somewhere between an oral culture and a pictorial culture, written in
chalk. We are awash in “information” but little knowledge. And our society is losing the capacity to filter out nonsense because there is so much self-publishing, so little editing, and just so much stuff that old ideas of proof, evidence, sustained argument, and reason are being lost in the riptides of popularity.

We want our children to be able to use computers and other forms of communication and media. But we also want them to retain what is best, to be able to remember things, to develop the literacy of sustained reading and writing, to understand the connection between saying something and doing something, the hand-eye-brain connection that is being lost. We want them to function in a literate world, and a post-literate world.

Since we become, in some ways, the tools that we use (gotta have my cellphone with me! Have I checked my email? What is on TV tonight?), what we want is to ensure that our children have the best of the new technology (laptops, iPads, SmartBoards), and also the best of the older ones – pens, books, hammers, spades, pots and pans). We want our children to be competent and capable in many ways, and to develop both broadly and deeply through the use of many kinds of tools. In my next blog, I want to tell you about our plans for the Design and Technology courses, the woodworking shop, the gardens, the library, the bouldering wall, and even our new digital technology.