Online learning in computer labs–what might the effect be?

 OK, we’ve got them. My co-teacher and I have successfully got our classes of kids, whose classrooms essentially are computer labs, into their online modules. The sound of a classroom full of simultaneous keyboards takes me way back to typing class in the 70’s–but way quieter. A teacher can speak aloud over a classroom of synchronous skill building–it sounds like the patter of steady rain on a roof.

But when they are engaged for 30-60 minutes at a time with one of their web-based lesson modules, what is happening to their cognitive growth? Do the longish sessions of single modalilty help counter the stultifying effects of distracting communications media on the brain? According to the “This is your brain on computers” article in the New York Times, the constant distraction of digital devices in students’ lives worry researchers. The worry is that “constant digital stimulation like this creates attention problems for children with brains that are still developing, who already struggle to set priorities and resist impulses.”  So could my partner and I be helping with our summer school class, entitled “Survey of Technology and Research”?

Is the “flow” they experience working through the series analogous to what  they might get in longer form learning experiences that are already effective at nurturing cognitive growth–I mean project-based learning and reading and analyzing long narratives?

According to Harvard professor Steven Pinker, immersing students in uni-task activities may be just the ticket.  I was impressed with his article in the NY Times last week. This leader in cognition, a man who studies brains, sees no harm in the sea of electronic technologies in which our society now swims. In fact, he claims that because of the exponential growth of information, we need new tools to manage its flow. How to process such volumes of thought with old tools? Twitter, etc. can be seen as an evolutionary appendage that has grown to allow us to understand many different narratives flows at one time. History has grown multiplicities, and these technologies let a person “read” it.

So perhaps our students’ training sessions are helping them evolve what they will need to meet the demand of modern communications technologies. Pinker suggests that without experience in the use of electronic technologies, we would be dis-serving our youth.  His final paragraph sums up

The new media have caught on for a reason. Knowledge is increasing exponentially; human brainpower and waking hours are not. Fortunately, the Internet and information technologies are helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales, from Twitter and previews to e-books and online encyclopedias. Far from making us stupid, these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart.

Still, there exist hazards in becoming technologically mediated. It may be that we are becoming less humane to each other. In the same Times article, Professor Clifford Nass at Stanford says that “the ultimate risk of heavy technology use is that it diminishes empathy by limiting how much people engage with one another, even in the same room.
‘The way we become more human is by paying attention to each other,’ he said. ‘It shows how much you care.’ That empathy, Mr. Nass said, is essential to the human condition. ‘We are at an inflection point,’ he said. ‘A significant fraction of people’s experiences are now fragmented.’

So while we equip them with the powerful capabilities of the machines, we will need to make sure that they stay human. I always try to “keep it real” in classes, but now we’ll need to “keep it human.”
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