I’ll be honest – while I’m writing this I currently have five Internet tabs open, a Microsoft Word document open, and two different email accounts open. That’s not to mention the smartphone sitting on my desk just a short reach from the keyboard and my Kindle charging next to my computer. I am certainly a multitasker. Before watching the PBS Digital Nation video, I, like the MIT students interviewed in the video, thought that I was good at multitasking. According to the research presented by the video, we are actually terrible at focusing when we’re attempting to multitask. The professors in the video claimed students today wrote paragraphs when they used to write essays in the past. They claimed that the students would write a paragraph and then check their email, or write a paragraph and then hop on Facebook. One student said his paragraphs were always “awesome”, but disconnected. The thinking is, the Internet and multitasking are making it so we cannot focus our entire attention on one task for an extended period of time.
I was surprised to see the professors at MIT standing in front of a room of students, lecturing. I would have thought at a school with students that are so digitally savvy, that the school would have thought of more interesting ways to engage the students. Are colleges not discussing ways to flip their classrooms? The professors were talking about only the downsides of allowing students to use their laptops in class – such as not focusing on the lecture and watching YouTube videos instead. But what if the professors made it so the students had to use their laptops to participate in class? They could have a twitter feed for the class open and displayed on a SmartBoard. They could have polls periodically throughout the class that the students would use their computers or smartphones to answer. I’m sure there could be many creative ways to engage the students using the technology they use on a daily basis.
Personally, I’m not too worried about the fear of Internet overload. According to Lehrer in his New York Times article, Socrates was upset about what damage the invention of books could have on the human mind. Now we’re upset that the internet is taking time away from reading books. I read books and articles both in print and digitally. My husband reads the New York Times daily, via his computer, smartphone, or tablet. He said he never read the Times before reading it digitally. In the past when I would read a word I didn’t understand in a paper book, very rarely I would look up the definition unless I needed. Now, while reading texts on my Kindle, whenever I come across an unfamiliar word, I highlight it and can instantly find the definition. The Internet is not making us dumb, in fact it has the capability of broadening our minds.
Even though I am a digital native and appreciate today’s technology, I acknowledge there are times when we need to purposefully power down. We as a society need to teach our youth how to power down, though. I read an idea recently about going out to dinner with friends and having everyone put their phones on a pile in the center of the table. The deal was, whoever reached for their phone first had to pay dinner. This game forced the diners to enjoy each others’ company without distractions. There could be a similar game played in study groups or dorm rooms during exam time, in which the first person to tweet or update their Facebook status had to buy everyone a pizza. If we model the proper use of technology, our youth will learn from us.
One professor in the video stated that he could not assign a 200-page novel anymore, claiming that his students have shorter attention spans than students of the past. I have friends who can play video games for hours on end without interruption, so I don’t believe it’s an issue of attention span. That professor should not make his classes less rigorous due to a perceived attention deficiency in his class, but should assign that 200-page novel. The students who are serious about their education will put down their smartphones and turn away from their computer screens in order to finish the book. I’ve had to power down in order to work on assignments, and so have my children. If we model when and how to use our electronics and when not to, our youth will follow.