Thinking About “Digital Nation”

Frontline's Digital Nation

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the Frontline show, Digital Nation.  If you didn’t get a chance to see it on television, there is a fabulous web site that includes many excerpts from the broadcast, along with more in-depth pieces, interviews, and resources. This is going to be a loooong post, so I’m giving y’all the option to opt out now.

There were some great segments on that show – a psychologist using virtual worlds to help Iraq veteran’s deal with PTSD, teachers innovating in the classroom, a wonderful page of personal stories, and interviews with great thinkers and leaders.  There were also a number of extremely irritating segments – scare tactic features on “internet addiction” and Mark Bauerlein’s (author of The Dumbest Generation) interview.

One of my favorite segments was an interview with Sherry Turkle, from MIT.  I’ve long been a fan of Turkle’s from her book, Falling for Science, where she profiles 60 or so eminent scientists to tell their stories about how they fell in love with their field.  If you don’t have time to read the entire book, do yourself a favor one day and read the interview with Susan Hockfield (now President of MIT) about her introduction to the world of science through a microscope. Brilliant.

But back to Digial Nation….In her interview on the show, Sherry Turkle talks about “stillness” and the need to be quiet, to reflect, to pause.  She worries that our children are not finding stillness – that they are always on, multitasking, jumping from one engaging event to another.  She refers to Thoreau and the three things he set out for himself – he wanted to live deliberately, he wanted to live in his life, and he wanted to live with no sense of resignation.  As Turkle explains, Thoreau required stillness to do this.  She fears that that we’re not giving our children this opportunity, that they are not living deliberately. Rather, we’re living a little in our lives, a little online, a little with our cell phones.

Well. Good point.  And certainly something to consider carefully.  Stillness and being able to reflect are most definitely compulsory qualities in a life well lived.  And I agree with Turkle that you have to have a set of values from which to work.  We want our children to have strong social skills, to negotiate, and have a conversation.  But we also want our children to have a strong sense of ethics, to know how to contribute, to respect the rights and property of others, to be able to find their teachers, and to understand the power and permanence of the electronic medium they work in. I don’t see this as a zero-sum game – as one or the other – that they will either be technologically literate or they will be well developed human beings.  Why can’t we work on all of those things, seamlessly, from a values-based position?

I agree with Turkle when she makes the point that technology in not a panacea.  It can be used for good, or for ill – it’s just a tool.  Where I have problems with her position is when I consider what some of our more cautious and regressive thinkers might do with her argument.  She claims that she wants to “give nostalgia a good name.”  That is, she says, if something worked and was helpful to parents, teachers, and children, that thing should be celebrated and brought forward.  I worry that critics of technology will use her well reasoned commentary to urge schools and leaders to abandon technology investment (teacher training, IT support, curriculum development) and instead pursue a movement back to ‘”Reading, Writin’, and ‘Rithmatic”  That the complicated task of figuring out how technology could be used to best effect will be abandoned.  Figuring this out is damned difficult and it’s all too easy to abandon the job, righteously claiming that is  “dangerous”  or “our kids can’t cope with it.”  We can’t let nostalgia lull us into thinking that this is not a worthwhile challenge to take on.

I also agree with Turkle that new media technology does not mean we can do without the teacher (or the therapist) in the room.  Of course we still need teachers!  The teachers are the interpreters, the leaders, the interlocuteurs – they help our children figure out the human meaning of it all.  I can’t imagine anyone who is thoughtfully applying new technologies to education ever advocating that technology should (or will) replace teachers.

One place that I really part company with her is when she points out that simulated experiments short-change science. That when students run a simulation of a science experiment, it always “comes out right” and therefore students don’t learn about the resistance of nature, about mistakes, and true discovery. True enough, but I think she’s missing something important (and nuanced) here.  A thoughtfully applied use of a simulation in a classroom can boost understanding – they key is to use it well.  Think about it this way.  A biology teacher plans a lesson on cell respiration. This is a very difficult biochemical topic – one that students wrestle with and many don’t ever really understand.  Teachers typically organize some type of a lab to help get the concepts across – how do cells make fuel for our bodies?  Where does the energy come from?  The lab experiments that drive these concepts are typically quite complex (e.g. measuring oxygen put off by germinating seeds).  When students run experiments like these, they inevitably focus entirely on the steps of the lab – how many seeds, how close is the lamp, how much soap to put in the water?  In their zeal to get the steps right, they miss the big picture – what is happening biochemically, what are the variables, what’s the control?  It’s a difficult challenge to raise their eyes from the procedural to the theoretical, the experimental. All science teachers struggle with this every day.  If they could design their lesson, with their particular students in mind, so that they tried the cell respiration experiment first in a simulation, and then, once they were comfortable with the procedural steps (and their impacts), they move onto the real life experiment where things get messy, variables become critical, and unexpected results present themselves.  Well, to me, that sounds like a perfect application of the technology. But that scenario takes time, thoughtful planning, and a deep understanding of the unique affordance of simulations.  And it certainly won’t happen if we abandon our investment in new technologies for education.

She makes an interesting point about mindfulness in her interview.  Turkle says, “For every hour you spend in very fun interactions on Second Life, there’s got to be someplace you’re not.”  That’s a good point.  And it’s the logic that usually surfaces for me in all of these discussions about multitasking.  The debate rages on about whether or not multitasking is a good for our brains.  Of course we know that a certain amount of multitasking is absolutely necessary for success in life (name me a successful surgeon, airline pilot, or lawyer who isn’t multitasking when they operate, fly a plane or argue a court case) but how much multitasking should we allow ourselves?  And what are we loosing when we’re doing this?  When I am multitasking at my desk (checking email, sitting in on a meeting in the virtual world, reviewing my twitter account, looking something up online) it means that I’m constantly turning to the thing I’m not doing, rather than focusing on the thing that I am doing.  I worry about that.  When I sit down to read a New Yorker article these days, I find myself pretty quickly twitching to look up a word, a reference, or send the article’s link to someone else who I know would enjoy it. We want our children to be able to multitask, certainly, but we also want them to be able to think about hard things, to focus for long stretches of time, to follow a complex argument, to read deeply, to deal with the difficult.

Turkle does acknowledge the exciting and interesting things that can happen in virtual worlds.  Places where you can experiment with ideas, practice skills, see things you might never see in real life, play with the laws of physics, experiment with gender.  But she goes on to make the point that for every hour of “virtual life”, there’s an hour not spent on your real life.  She’s right to remind us that there are only 24 hours in a day and that the seduction of the virtual, particularly when compared to the hard elements involved in face-to-face interactions with people, is very intense.

It seems to me that the key is to think in terms of our virtual experiences and our online hours as stepping stones (ha – get it? my blog’s name!) to the rest of our lives.  That the experiences and interactions we have online or in the virtual help us to make sense of our real life – work, friendships, education, and families.  And those connections certainly will not happen if we ban cell phones, fail to train teachers, and pull the plug on the power of new participatory media.  It can only happen if we thoughtfully and planfully engage and decide, what are the meaningful applications of these new media.



Filed under Reflections on Teaching, Technology Trends

2 responses to “Thinking About “Digital Nation”

  1. Kate

    The whole “you could be doing something else” argument is specious, imho. After all, every hour you spend doing anything is, by definition, an hour you’re not doing something else (saving the world, recycling, curing cancer, reading great literature, reconnecting with old friends, feeding the homeless). Turkle completely lost me there. If she’s implying that time spent in virtual worlds is, de facto, time better spent doing anything else, she’s wrong (robbing banks? twiddling your thumbs? reading Harlequins?). If she’s saying that it’s time better spent doing some other things, well, then… how do we decide which things?

    To me, that’s one of the biggest issues we face today: abundance. With so much to do and so many different sources of information, how do we discern what’s worth doing and what sources are good?

    :grumble, grumble:

    I did like most of the interview. Love the idea of pursuing stillness. Got me feelin’ all zen.

  2. rheyden

    Good point, Kate. Gotta remember that discerning what’s worth doing is different for each person. I suspect that Turkle was just trying to raise awareness but her bias was showing there (bias towards the “not online” activities in life). How do we discern what’s worth doing…that is indeed the question – and each person has to define that for themselves.

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