By Hanna Lindstrom
Children today are saturated in technology—from digital learning games to more advanced interactions like social networking and text messaging. The Internet has changed much about how young people today connect and receive information. Though written off by many parents as pure entertainment or passing fads, these technologies may be having a more lasting impact on how young people learn and retain knowledge. The increasing role of digital and Internet-based programs in classrooms across the country only intensifies these potential effects. A number of recent reports have attempted to quantify the ways in which technological exposure can impact the way the human brain processes and sorts information, and it seems clear that constant exposure can cause change. Whether that change is detrimental is much less certain, however, and for now, technology seems destined to play an ever-growing role in education.
Technology’s impact on young people is perhaps most evident when it comes to schoolwork. Schools today commonly employ iPads to teach math and language skills, and teachers can set up social networks or blogs to encourage communication and interaction in the after-school hours. “These youth have been completely normalized by digital technologies—it is a fully integrated aspect of their lives,” education policy group The Education Arcade said in a 2009 study of technology’s impact on education. “Many students in this group are using new media and technologies to create new things in new ways, learn new things in new ways, and communicate in new ways with new people— behaviors that have become hardwired in their ways of thinking and operating in the world.”
Many argue that this sort of immersion approach prepares children for a work world that will likely revolve around new media. Framed this way, educating tomorrow’s workers to succeed in the fast-faced realm of technological savvy is a benefit that may well give them a competitive edge. Schools have been quick to embrace this possibility, and government programs are helping finance technology integration initiatives in nearly all states.
Not everyone agrees that the benefits are worth the costs, however. “Technology is a tool to assist learning. School closets and storage facilities across the U.S., though, are filled with cables, monitors and hardware costing millions of dollars that are now useless,” Paul Thomas, a veteran English teacher, wrote in a “debate” piece for The New York Times. Thomas was primarily concerned that money was being poured into new adoptions without providing enough background training for teachers to really use the technology to its fullest potential.
Others are concerned that implementing social technologies into the classroom can detract from the real value of the material presented, else present generally serious subjects in a too casual or “watered down” way. Critics with this view are often quick to point out that students are typically very connected outside of school, and as such are essentially training themselves to success in a wired world post-graduation.
A newer issue is just seeping into the debate, and that is how digital learning affects the development of children’s brains. A fair amount of research has been done showing that life in a multimedia world does alter the way the brain approaches information and learns new patterns. Very little has been said about whether this is harmful or advantageous, though. Changing the way kids learn to reflect the times and current market demands is certainly nothing new. While there is rightly some concern about the possible side effects of media dependence—shortened attention spans, the need for constant stimulation, and hyperactivity being among the most common—there may also be advantages to teaching the next generation to think and see the world in a more futuristic way. Most educators and policy makers believe that the risk is worth the rewards when it comes to student performance and overall learning.
Hanna Lindstrom is a writer and researcher for EducationalPsychology.net. Feel free to check out more of her writing!