Shallows or Depths?

Yesterday, we had a Tech N Talk on the effects of technology on student learning. Psychology professor Grace Baron and three of her students led a conversation about what they learned in a senior seminar in the Fall Semester.

My quick opening remarks went something like this:

There can be no doubt that we are now immersed in a digital environment. Whether you are actively using technology as a teacher or not, it is effecting teaching and learning. We have ubiquitous wireless on campus combined with 3G and 4G networks, which together essentially ensure that we have access to the Web just about everywhere and 24/7. Add mobile devices like iPhones to the mix and now we don’t have to be at our desk or even carrying a laptop to take advantage of that access. In addition, many of the new tools now take advantage of this networked environment, many that we’ve highlighted in our Tech N Talks: Diigo, GoogleDocs, onCourse, Voicethreads, blogs, wikis. They rely on a networked, connected environment for their success.

And this connected environment has really changed the way that faculty teach and students learn. onCourse provides access 24/7 to information about the course and in some instances a place to carry on conversations between classes. Class blogs can serve a similar function, but they also allow students to interact with those outside the classroom and give students experience with writing to external audiences. GoogleDocs, Voicethreads, Diigo, and wikis enhance opportunities for collaboration at times even erasing the boundaries that define authorship and ownership of a text. Access to information for research or even simply as fodder for discussion can now literally be in the palm of your hand. And modes of sharing information in academia have become decentralized; it’s no longer centered on the publishing industry or even on the academic paper.

Given this environment what are useful questions for faculty to ask? What do faculty members need to think about when teaching within this environment? Here’s what I came up with:

  • How is my chosen technological tool helping me reach my pedagogical goals?
  • Can my chosen tool change my goals? Do I want it to?
  • What technical skills do my students need to be professionals within my discipline?
  • How does the networked environment influence my discipline? Does it change the way we publish? Does it change the way we write? Does it change the way we communicate in general with others in our discipline? Does it change the way information in the discipline is created and consumed?
  • How can I help my students navigate all of the information in this networked environment?

Professor Baron and her students went on to discuss their own and their discipline Psychology’s hopes, concerns, and fears about the effects of this digital environment. They were all heavily influenced by Nicolas Carr’s The Shallows, which they read in the class and while they acknowledged many of the benefits (social, intellectual,etc.) that technology brings, they also worried, like Carr, that today’s students are losing the capacity for deep reflection. Grace Baron argued that we need to build more of this kind of reflection about the effects of technology into the curriculum.

My own opinion? Being an academic technologist and a bit of an evangelist myself, I probably find myself falling into the “Never-Better” or the “Ever-Wasers” camps, which Adam Gopnik recently described in a New Yorker article which surveys the different books that are currently out there about the Internet (of which The Shallows is a part):

All three kinds appear among the new books about the Internet: call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

But I think it’s important to note that this is a moment of change and transition, and we are both losing and gaining something in this moment — as we have done with almost every technology that was introduced. It would be foolish to try to stop it, because the benefits are very real. But we need to be cognizant about what we’re losing as well and try our best to identify and hold onto what’s valuable among those things that might be slipping away.

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