Hyperlinked and dumb?

by Yule Heibel on April 26, 2005

Pay attention…

Messaging technology depletes human cognitive abilities more rapidly than drugs, according to a new psychiatric study. The study, conducted at King’s College, London, found that in a clinical trial, people who are frequently interrupted by e-mail, text messages and phone calls suffered a 10 percent decline in IQ scores, more than twice the fall recorded by marijuana users. Symptoms exhibited by users responding to messaging technology included lethargy and an inability to focus. “We have found that this obsession with looking at messages, if unchecked, will damage a worker’s performance by reducing their mental sharpness,” said psychiatrist Dr Glenn Wilson of King’s College. [Source: Electricnews.net, Roundups for 22 April 2005 (Sylvia Leatham)]

The Register (Andrew Orlowski) also ran this story, albeit with even more darkly apocalyptic overtones relating to education and technology. The Guardian (Martin Wainwright) also weighed in. Both focussed on email, although the study’s most damning conclusions were about messaging. Whatever, being hooked up 24/7 isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

As a homeschooling parent of two kids whose learning, in a distance ed. experiment begun in 2003, is mediated almost exclusively via computer these days, I think it’s accurate to report that this delivery method has not made either child more acute or given him or her greater insight. If anything, the technology has been an interference, maddening when stuck on typical Microsoft software glitches, and infuriating in its assumption of being “good,” when in reality it was often trite. I’m also disenchanted by the cohort in e-learning or v-learning (v for virtual): an undefinable quality of curiousity is missing from these kids, and there’s little joy in learning. They’re jumping through hoops held up by zeroes and ones. It’s about time to pull the plug.

In an article from March 21, Andrew Orlowski also wrote about the findings of two Munich University researchers who, after studying and comparing PISA results, concluded that computers make kids dumb. It should be mentioned, however, that it’s the neglect of homework in favour of computers that seems to account for the decisive effect. Steve Talbott (whose newsletter I get via email, ahem) writes about this study, too (scroll down a ways), and his thoughts are well worth considering:

As most readers know, I generally don’t put much stock in social research of this sort, regardless of which side of an issue it comes down on. What interests me in the current case is not so much the report’s conclusions as the response to them: numerous commentators have been heard moaning about our failure to train teachers in the effective use of computers. Surely, we’re told, the fault must lie with the teachers, not with the bureaucrats and industry consultants who’ve been busy telling all teachers everywhere how they should convey their life-long learning to students!

Yes, teacher ineptitude is a logically possible explanation of the situation. But you’d think these pedagogical experts would occasionally ask themselves whether the widespread teacher resistance might have a more reasonable explanation — namely, computer ineptitude. It is, after all, just possible that a great deal about the computer works *against* its educational use. It might be, for example, that the computer tends to make more difficult the single greatest educational task today, which is to bring the student into the fullest, richest engagement with reality — the reality of the natural world, the human being, and society. [Emphasis mine; I think Talbott’s comment can be usefully compared to Howard Gardner’s formulation about education for understanding: engagement with reality and understanding embrace each other.]

To hear (now former) U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige tell it, such questions hardly need raising, because the essential role of computers in the classroom has become an axiom of faith. In the National Education Technology Plan, released in January, Paige tells us that “Education is the only business[!] [that exclamation mark is Talbott’s emphasis] still debating the usefulness of technology. Schools remain unchanged for the most part despite numerous reforms and increased investment in computers”.

In other words, we’ve sunk a lot of money into computers and it hasn’t helped much, so obviously (as the report urges) we’ve got to sink more money into them. In particular, we need more training. No funds for such training? Not to worry, say the authors. A little “reallocation of existing budgets” should do the trick. Presumably, whatever the money was being used for before didn’t have much to do with real education. Of course, no one’s explaining why, if the educational bureaucracy screwed things up so badly before by wasting money on useless things, we should now trust it to reallocate wisely the vast sums being shifted from teachers to machines. [This quote is from NetFuture #161, March 9/05.]

See this page for more of Steve Talbott’s essays on Education and Computers, and see NetFuture main page for current and past issues.

{ 1 comment }

maria April 27, 2005 at 3:11 am

Hmm … you do find the most fascinating stuff, Yule. And, because I am so hooked on constantly checking my email acocunts, as well as my Bloglines subscriptions (checking to see who in my declared bloger neighborhood has updated), I am getting quite an education! Even if I can’t quite retain it all, in the end.

Seriously, though: the way you weave these studies together is enough to make me want to declare regular computer-free days, just to try to salvage whatever is left of my ability to focus.

Lucky for my kids, they spend a lot of hours out on the water … reading the wind and tides, instead of instant messages!

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