I just finished Mark Bauerlein's new book: The Dumbest Generation (New York 2008). I won't review it here, but it offered an interesting (and perhaps valuable) perspective on the causes and side effects of the growing use of technology in the university classroom.
Bauerlein basically argues that students deep involvement in the New Media -- what he calls Screen Time -- derives in part from the Youth Movement in the 1960s and its rejection of both adult authority and the intellectual traditions of the previous generations. The ability of the New Media Universe to cater to the individual tastes of the user has merged with the intensely self-centered perspective of most adolescents to shield them from adult culture and to validate their rejection of traditional values. In the end, this has produced a generation of Americans who lack the skills necessary to be successful in American society largely because their immersion in the world of the internet has allowed them to ignore their teachers, adults, and mentors. To support this, Bauerlein marshals an impressive array of studies that show that despite the advantages provided by access to the "information superhighway" this Dumbest Generation performs no better and in many cases worse than their predecessors. He singles out reading levels for particular scrutiny and agues that the myriad of distractions - from social networking sites, to blogs, to YouTube - detracts from the time that an earlier generation of students dedicated to reading books. The result is that students' reading levels (and writing levels) have steadily declined as they become more and more immersed in a world of their own making.
Critics counter, of course, that traditional literacy is being replaced with a kind of technological literacy: the ability to navigate the information rich spaces on the internet is a skill that has a much greater relevance in a world where books represent obsolete technology. Bauerlein frets over this notion, of course, and considers it particularly detrimental in that it empowers students to dig themselves more deeply into their protected world of adolescent delights, rather than the more challenging environment of produced by mentors, teachers, and adults and the accrued weight of traditional knowledge.
Perhaps more troubling is the notion that despite students' rejection of traditional modes of learning (e.g. book reading, standard lecture formats), they have not necessarily developed the kinds of skills necessarily to successfully gather, collate, and process the information that they encounter on the internet. Sam Fee, at Arranged Delirium posted a link to a well-known 2007 article on InsideHigherEd.com entitled: "Are College Students Techno Idiots?" This article suggests that most university students use the internet in a superficial way. Following a set of well trod paths, they rarely venture into unknown territories in search of challenges, but frequent a relatively limited set of places and, in turn, practice and develop a rather limited set of skills.
For yet another perspective on this, we can consider the debate over whether faculty should use social networking sites to improve their ability to deliver content and capture students attention. Some students, of course, are appalled that faculty are willing (and able!) to invade their private domains. Some faculty on the other hand, see this as an important way to challenge and transform the intellectually safe (and sterile in Bauerlein's view) environment of student space on the web.
The various critiques of the value of integrating more "New Media" or Web 2.0 content into university level classes have come back to me this week as I have begun to see the initial results from my experiments with Twitter and a class Wiki. On the one hand, I've been impressed with the ability of some students to work together to produce high-quality content, particularly on the class Wiki for a 100 (intro) level history course. On the other hand, the gap between students who are comfortable on the web and those who find basic navigation a challenge is remarkable. More importantly, perhaps, is whether these applications improve the quality of classroom time and encourage the students to become more deeply invested in the course material. It is still too early to tell on either of these points, but the tools and concepts that make us the Web 2.0 world are not essentially incompatible with increased student involvement in intellectual life. The responsibility may fall to faculty in their roles as leaders and mentors to transform student expectations of the internet experience and shepherd them gently toward the places where real learning -- with books, ideas, and intellectual challenges - takes place.