An "F" in Reading

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Via Arts and Letters Daily is an article from the site's parent, The Chronicle of Higher Education, that discusses the pedagogical pitfalls of online content, both in terms of how people read content from a computer screen and in terms of how delivery through the Internet can affect comprehension.

Given one of the points it makes -- that we go for the "nut" as we browse the web -- I can't resist the temptation to provide a short, pithy excerpt, this being a quote from web researcher Jakob Nielsen. (But I do recommend reading the whole thing.)

We should accept that the Web is too fast-paced for big-picture learning. No problem; we have other media, and each has its strengths. At the same time, the Web is perfect for narrow, just-in-time learning of information nuggets -- so long as the learner already has the conceptual framework in place to make sense of the facts. [bold added]
The educational fad of exposing children to computers at a very young age has bothered me for a long time because a computer is just a tool and, as such, it is no better than the person using it.

The article argues that the widespread use of computers in educational settings may be detrimental to cognitive development. That point is well-taken, and I agree that much could be gained by having children do more learning without all the distractions of a computer to compete with the lesson at hand.

But it is noteworthy that the article describes a study of how "student achievement" in New York was influenced by a laptop program. Laptop use was found to have no effect on student achievement. If computer use is so detrimental to the development of young minds, shouldn't laptop users have scored lower on such a test?

More important, other than in the narrow skill set of knowing how to use a computer, why would we necessarily expect students to score better simply by virtue of familiarity with the use of a computer? Calculators are superior to abacuses and slide rules in many respects, but were we to test for a student's understanding of mathematical concepts, why would the use of a tool really matter, unless one tool gave better practice in the use of the concepts in question? (I dare say, I can easily imagine that inferior tools could often be better in this regard!)

Not mentioned in the article is the elephant in the room of the dismal quality of our educational system and its systematic, purposeful resemblance to the "hidden television set" of the modern, networked computer. Computers can be distracting in many ways, yes, but were we to consider that the dominant school of thought in education fails to "emphasize systematic study of the academic disciplines", we would probably better understand why our students can't make better use of computers than they do.

Conceptual development (which Nielsen alludes to above) and self-discipline are two qualities that are systematically omitted in today's dominant Progressive school of educational thought. Blaming modern technology for our failing classrooms now is as wrong-headed as expecting computers alone to somehow save our children from public education was in the past. (I don't think the article makes this error, but making the computer less prominent in education will not alone accomplish much in our current context.)

Rather than snatching tools from their grasp, perhaps we should save our children from the clutches of public education and its entrenched cadre of comprachicos.

-- CAV

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