The Efficacy of Digital Tools

From Ruston Daily Leader, November 18, 2010

First of all, thank you to everyone who participated in my survey.  It helped a great deal.

Secondly, I want to go back today to the article I wrote in September concerning the New York Times article on the slow moving maturation of Generation Y.  On Tuesday I went to a Technology and Innovation Symposium on behalf of the Air Force Global Strike Command at the Shreveport Convention Center.  I had the opportunity to hear speaker Marc Prensky and professor Mark Bauerlein debate the effect of technology on education.  Marc Prensky, author of “Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning,” argued for the efficacy of technology and on the converse, Mark Bauerlein who wrote “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” argued that technology is making us stupid.

Prensky argued we are living in an era that is exponentially changing in which “machines, digital tools, are becoming more and more powerful.”  He argues that we must learn to make the machines work for us, that if we do not learn technical skills such as programming, we will be at the mercy of those who possess the knowledge.  Prensky, wildly positive and hopeful at times, had a valid challenge in urging the crowd to become less dependent on others to do these tasks.  He compares the current phase to reaching one similar to the phase in which professional scribes were hired by the elites to do their reading and writing.  The power is in the translator.

Prensky says we are living in an era in which education begins with capturing attention and engaging the passions.  Counter to Bauerlein’s argument that the use of technology is void of necessary challenges, Prensky argues that technology can offer substantial obstacles such as those seen in video games.  However, technology in terms of entertainment is just a manipulation of the already “written” rules of society.  To argue that technology offers its own challenges by using the example of a video game is to only prove that human beings are driven by challenges, and thus the video game companies have used our nature to their advantage.

Bauerlein, taking on the more difficult argument, makes a really great case for the austere, hard work that comes with having to search, or work, for your goals—goals which must be present by the hunger for knowledge only reached by means of critical thinking.  As he talks, there are many silent rebuttals that come to mind in my head; however, the theory behind his argument is solid.  He talks about the great delays he has witnessed in the maturing process of my generation.  He explains the social network phenomenon as its participants being constantly “in the network”.  There is the “ubiquitous presence of your peers, which intensifies the age segregation.”  All space becomes social because all spaces, even private spaces, are permeated with access to your peers.  Even if the phone is on silent or turned off, you are still receiving the messages.  The influence of adults has been delayed because our generation is spending so much time under the watchful eye of their peers.

His argument is a romantic one.  Whether he intends to or not—he conjures up, for me, images of being in an ornate university library in the wintertime, completely disconnected from the world, only connected to your wise professors and your hungry and insightful peers.  And I am tempted to be angry with technology for taking this particular form of social solitude away from me.

Despite my educational fantasies, the point that can’t be ignored—and precisely why I think Prensky has the easier argument—is that technology is not the evil.  If the students can find the goals compelling enough they will do the work to get there.

You also cannot ignore that our education is severely lacking for more reasons than technological advancement.  We have been watered down into ignorant mush.  Perhaps our education system churns out more numbers, but quantity does not necessarily equal quality.

My 14-year-old brother complained to me tonight about his heavy school load.  His “fortunate” friend’s mother requester her son not be put into gifted and honors programs so that he could make all A’s.  “How unfair!,” my little brother indignantly whines.  And I tell him that he’s actually the fortunate one.  And I want to tell that mom she is part of the problem.

At some point the pretending will have to cease whether it be the pretense of knowing by consulting your iPhone or the pretense of knowing by only doing what is easy.  At some point, you will be asked to perform.  The point is what you are going to do with the technology.  It is the misuse and manipulation of this tool, which has led to the stupefied generation.

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