Tech-enhanced learning earns failing grade

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including his latest: “New Warfare: Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”


I have to admit I am a Luddite. I tend to be skeptical of all the hyping of emerging technology, whether it is the self-driving car or robots delivering your cocktail at a restaurant. 

Nowhere has there been more touting of technology than in the field of education, where we are constantly being told of the multiplier effects of smartphones, laptops and other electronic devices on human brainpower. Go into virtually any school in America and you will hear Barnum and Bailey-type hoopla surrounding the latest gadgets.

The fervor is especially pronounced in K-12 more so than higher education. In the university classroom, technology is used as just another pedagogical tool. 

In K-12, it is considered the Holy Grail. For example, a Hazelwood School District official, quoted in an Oct. 13 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article about schools expanding the use of laptops, tablets and smartphones, said: “Let’s face it. The kids today learn differently than we did. We need to teach the way our kids learn today.”

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I wish to add my voice to a growing chorus of those who question such claims.

While my skepticism may be due to my own technophobia and incompetence around technology – my wife kids me that I am still making do with my ancient flip-style cellphone – I like to think it is also grounded in lots of evidence that technology can be a double-edge sword that has as much potential to reduce our intellectual capacity as strengthen it. 

Don’t get me wrong. The 95 percent of the human race who have cellphones and the 50 percent who are connected to the internet benefit enormously from the inventions of Steve Jobs and others, their lives enriched by the enhanced access to information along with the fun and convenience provided by our latest machines. 

I, too, use the technology. Google, for example, is nothing short of wondrous, mostly because of how simple it makes “research.” In days of yore, when I had to revise a textbook and update information on, say, the number of parties to the Moon Treaty or the per capita income of Nauru, I would schlep over to the library, trudge through the stacks looking for a reference book that was likely to be a bit dated, and schlep back to the office to make the changes. Now, within nanoseconds, in the comfort of my home study, I can find the most current data and make the necessary changes in my manuscript.  

And that is the rub. Especially for young students whose minds are still in a primitive state, it has become all too easy to convince oneself that you have become learned and that your ideas are worth sharing far and wide, when all you have become adept at is pressing the flesh to a keyboard, a skill that preschoolers are able to master. 

What we have is a Faustian Bargain. The same technology that allows everyone instant access to encyclopedic knowledge and gives everyone a printing press comes with huge downsides, not only a faux sense of one’s erudition but many other bads. 

Let me list just a few of the negatives.

First, as Nicholas Carr noted in his book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains,” our brains are being rewired in ways that reduce our capacity for memory and for higher level mental functioning. In his Oct. 7 Wall Street Journal article, “How Smartphones Hijack Our Minds,” he observes that “our devices have an unprecedented grip on our attention – and research suggests that as we grow more dependent on them, our intellect weakens.” 

Not only is time wasted, often with frivolous uses of technology aimed at entertainment, but people are becoming addicted to their phones and computers. Apple reports the typical iPhone owner unlocks their phone 80 times a day on average. Teenagers spend almost nine hours a day online, according to a 2015 report from the education non-profit group Common Sense Media. The National Safety Council reports that one out of every four auto accidents in the United States is due to texting while driving.

Carr cites a 2015 study that found “when people’s phones beep or buzz while they’re in the middle of a challenging task, their focus wavers, and their work gets sloppier.” Another 2015 study showed that “when people hear their phone ring but are unable to answer it, their blood pressure spikes and their problem-solving skills decline.” Experimental studies have found that students who “didn’t bring their phones to the classroom scored a full letter-grade higher on a test of the material presented than those who brought their phones.” 

I can attest to the addictive nature of these devices. For decades, my classroom rarely witnessed students getting up in the middle of class, walking out and then a few minutes later walking back in. Of course, there was the occasional student who might have had to take a bathroom break. 

Nowadays, my classroom is like Grand Central Station, with lots of students busily taking turns going in and out during the lecture, presumably responding to text messages rather than answering nature’s call, in the process creating distractions and exhibiting a degree of rudeness never before seen in earlier generations.

No wonder many professors are banning electronic devices in their classes, even as K-12 classrooms become more computer-based and students become more dependent and hooked on these machines. 

Second, the “click-click” mentality associated with the Internet is contributing to our growing “sound bite” culture. Twitter, where one’s thoughts must be encapsulated in no more than 140 characters, is a metaphor for our time. Used to quickly Googling and jumping from one source to another, young and old alike are losing the patience to read and reflect upon the dense text found in long articles, much less books. Thus, we settle more and more for short, simplistic analysis of complicated issues.  

Third, we increasingly live in echo chambers as we gravitate to websites that reinforce our existing, predisposed assumptions about the world rather than attempting to be more open-minded and inquisitive. Facebook only aggravates the problem, bombarding us with “fake news” that adds to our ignorance.

As Sam Wineburg and his colleagues in the school of education at Stanford University have pointed out (in “The Challenge That’s Bigger Than Fake News,” American Educator, Fall 2017), the reality is that “today’s students are more likely to learn about the world through social media than through traditional sources,” and thus “it’s critical that students know how to evaluate the content that flashes on their screens.” Their 12-state study of middle school, high school and college students found that young people “may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend,” but when it comes to evaluating information on the Internet, “they’re easily duped.” Students were unable to identify who was behind the information being presented, were poor at evaluating the quality of the evidence, and were lazy in investigating other sources.  

We are not likely to return to a print-dominated information age any more than we could return to a horse-and-buggy transportation paradigm. We need to figure out how to maximize the benefits of digital technology while minimizing its disadvantages.

Meanwhile, can we have a little less hype and a little more caution?

Excuse me, I have to get back to email.