Digital Learning

Kids have it so easy today in school. If I’d had all the advantages of the internet, early computer access, digital ‘chalk’ boards and the army of technological gadgets available today I would have breezed through school. Right?

I’m not so sure about that.

For starters, kids at increasingly earlier ages are required to learn so many additional skills beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. Sure, they’ve spongy little brains designed for this task but is it mental overload? Does the need to learn the skills associated with the technology distract from absorbing the information required from their core classes?

My son had to produce his first typed report in the third grade. His rain forest project involved a Papier-mâché animal, a one page research paper and a class presentation. He spent time in class researching his topic: the caiman lizard. After hand-writing a first draft, a fourth grade peer edited his paper and made suggestions for improvement. We spent three weeks on the lizard itself. The final weekend he came home, tasked to type the paper and be ready to present and turn in the assignment on Monday.

Although my son had spent time on the computer playing video games and some limited web browsing, he’d never spent any time with a word processor. It took him hours to type the one page, five paragraph report. Tempted to type it for him, just to relieve his frustration, I resisted the urge to bail him out. Instead I encouraged him to just type it and we would work together to fix the spelling errors and formatting issues. It was the worst part of the entire project. Until that moment he’d enthusiastically thrown himself into the research, the art portion and even the writing of the paper.

On one hand, it’s great that he is learning these skills at a very early age. He will have an advantage when he’s older if he’s competent at typing, word processing and general computer navigation. On the other hand, the complete lack of practice in this skill detracted from his enjoyment of the entire project, leaving a somewhat bitter taste at the end of an otherwise interesting activity. Unfortunately, the teachers do not have time to work in computer skills practice (beyond the limited time they receive as the formal course curriculum).

Are we asking just a bit too much of our elementary school children?

I’m also concerned about fact retention. With the ease of finding general facts, the complete, permanent availability of all information, all the time I grow concerned that we’re getting lazy about remembering actual details and things and stuff.

Now that my phone can tell me when to turn and where, I’ve stopped paying attention to landmarks that help entrench the route I’ve just driven into my memory. Rather than memorizing a map of where I’m headed I dutifully wait for that precise voice to tell me, “At the next light, turn right.”

Knowing that I can refer back to web article on internet security, I no longer bother to remember what the article had to say. Honestly, I don’t even bother to remember the web address of where I saw it because I know that I can just Google it later. Later comes and I’ve moved on to some other topic. Article and information are lost in the caverns of my mind, failing to have made it into long term memory.

Do our children go through this same process? Are they foregoing memorization because they know they can always find it later?

Let’s face it, how we process and remember new information has fundamentally shifted. I love the advantages that these advancements bring my kids (All your textbooks on one reader or tablet? YES!) but I also don’t just assume that it really makes it any easier on them.

What do you think?

    • Jon C
    • October 19th, 2011

    I think there may be more of a disparity in the products of schools as a result of this access to information. Kids who do want to learn can go nuts and learn about everything. Kids who don’t will rely on crutches for their whole lives. They will just look up their answers on wikipedia and learn nothing.

    It basically opens you up to the full tree, breadth and depth, of all recorded knowledge. It leaves it completely up to you what to do with it, destabilizing the traditional education system of rote learning and set curriculum. You can actually go off on a tangent of something you find interesting and lose yourself completely in a subject with such ease. When I was growing up and asked my teacher about finding the area of a circle she told me to stop asking questions because it was not in the curiculum yet. It felt so limiting to not have the access to new knowledge at a whim. This access to everything also means that I learn about obscure subjects completely unrelated to my field, for better or worse.

    • Mike Sedgley
    • October 19th, 2011

    Great post! I completely understand where you were coming from. I think that technology makes it too easy on children. That is why when my kids ask me a question, they are going to get the answer I got: “Go look it up in then Encyclopedia and tell me the answer” and if they want a computer, they will get what I got: the IBM Home PC! In other words, they will not be “connected” to anything until they are at least 12. I love the Internet because it allows people to communicate and learn… for god sake, without it I wouldn’t even know you exist! But it is distracting to children… hell, even me, a big child.

    • clay
    • October 19th, 2011

    hmm-i dont think typing should be required until like 6th or 7th grade-some things in school should just be FUN-but thats my opinion

  1. IMHO? No. We are not asking too much of our children by wanting them to learn how to type. Yes, there will be a decrease in fact retention. It will become a luxury or talent instead of a necessity. We must re-engineer our academic system to compensate.

    The human body works like a muscle. It only strengthens when challenged properly. Too small of a challenge and growth is slow and plateaus. Too much of a challenge and you end up with damage.

    He will grow up not knowing some of the challenges you faced. They will be replaced by new challenges. He most likely will not spend much time buried in encyclopedias. His research will most likely take a fraction of what it took you. He will, instead, spend more time learning how to leverage massive amounts of knowledge and information on tools you’ve only dreamed of using.

    By the time he goes to undergrad, he may not even use a keyboard or a printer at all anymore. Your grandchildren will likely never have to touch cables or wires and may be learning pre-calc in the 4th grade.

    Instead of focusing on fact retention, schools may end up teaching children how to interpret and use those facts… increasing the rate of conceptualization and understanding.

    The world is changing in a rather large way. We best make sure that we’re ready for it.

    When I have a kids, I’ll tell them of the days I used to have to write on thin paper sheets with a tool made of graphite, wood, metal, and rubber. They’ll call me a cave man. I’ll just laugh, call them spoiled brats, and kick them off my lawn.

    • April Foster
    • October 20th, 2011

    As an educator, I think the point I would like to discuss is the following:
    “For starters, kids at increasingly earlier ages are required to learn so many additional skills beyond reading, writing and arithmetic. Sure, they’ve spongy little brains designed for this task but is it mental overload? Does the need to learn the skills associated with the technology distract from absorbing the information required from their core classes?”

    We live under the myth that children are sponges ready to suck up any available information presented to them. This is not true. Language acquisition skills have specific timing in the development of the human brain. The fine motor skills needed for handwriting and other taught skills are typically developed after we are required to teach them in most curriculums. We push, push, push our students to learn more information at an early age so we can beat the next school, the next district, the next state at that “Race to the Top” funding game. He who moves the most kids onto to the next grade wins their own job. We move teaching standards to early ages and ignore developmental milestones based on the public’s demand for “quality education”. Our brains, contrary to popular belief, are not some high powered super computer that is ready for all software to be fully loaded onto it at birth. They are amazing, complex and need the appropriate time to develop in order to work in the most effective manner. They are making leaps and bounds in their progress…but they aren’t fully developed until the age of 25.

    In regards to your point of do kids have it harder or easier than our generation did in terms of access to information:

    In one of my research papers for my degree, I focused on technology in the classroom and the role of the educator. I don’t typically just focus on the basics, and nor do many teachers. In fact, I have never known a good teacher to ever really teach rote learning methods. We teach what every good teacher has always instilled in their classroom: How to become your own teacher! We show children how to question theory, how to research their thirst for knowledge, and we STILL teach how to decipher that overload of information presented to us. Today you will hear teachers say, “Wikipedia IS NOT a valid source of information for a research paper!” Twenty years ago, teachers told my classmates and I, “Your grandparents textbooks will not work for this paper. Get something published after 1980!” And my grandparents were taught “Your neighbor isn’t the valid resource for this paper. Get a respected source!” And then the teachers taught us through lists and lessons, what was valid…what was questionable…what was pure opinion and how to use the proper questioning techniques to determine the validity of what we read and what we hear. The students of today are not that different than those before them. Yes, they have more stuff at a faster speed. But the basic concept of learning to be an educated student that thinks for himself has not changed since the first teacher spoke the first words to the first student. Students will remember what is important and dismiss all other things as they have always done. Lucky for them that now, with information at our fingertips, they can quickly revisit that topic later when it becomes a necessity to their progress. As people, we designed the computer to act like we think. Is it important? Yes and I need to use it all the time. Save it to the desktop. Is it important? Maybe. Store it in a file for later. Oh, but you’ll have to do some digging and maybe have a brief reminder to really open that file. Is it important? No. Dump it and if you find you need it later, reload it completely. So in that sense…we are the supercomputer….but we just have to take our time to develop the versions that will hold all our software.

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