By now technology is already firmly embedded in our lives at work and in schools, as well as in the home and on the move. One would perhaps expect that this leads to consolidate and stabilise the ways we deal with it. Yet, because there are still fundamental shifts happening and at rapid pace, we are confronted with ever new challenges. One thing that exerts a major impact on our lives is that technology no longer happens on a static monitor on dedicated desks or on stamp-size screens on our phones. We live ambient multi-medial and multi-channel lives!

Recent coverage on education reveals three main areas for concern:

  • Declining attention span
  • Lack of critical thinking
  • Fragmentation of information and learning

The first complaint is from teachers noting the increased difficulties students have to focus on an activity. We might add to that the experience from meetings and other f2f gatherings, where multiple channels co-exist simultaneously and with various signaling techniques battling for people’s attention. This is part of a wider Attention Economy where a variety of agents use all kinds of attention-raising methods to make us turn towards them. A latest development from the advertising industry is to send out ultrasound markers audible to dogs during a television advertisement for dog food. This type of conditioning is symptomatic in a world where attention sells a product.

Neuroscientists also found that the formation of synapses is slowed with less cognitive activities. They claim that even the slavish copying of text from the board to the exercise book goes in and out of the brain and thereby strengthens the synapsis connections. This effect is lost when using conditioned behaviour of copy-paste shortcuts on a computer. Of course, neither of these settings can be seen as effective pedagogy!

The next concern came from a BBC report on teachers complaining about the undiscerning absorption of information by students on the internet. While it is generally undisputed that more information is better, and that the internet empowers people to have access to amounts of information as never before, the opposite effect is noticed too. Increased exposure to misinformation and conspiracy theories, partly deliberately spread, apparently accounts for a lot of classroom discussions these days. While one may see some positive outcomes in challenging established knowledge, it makes the job of a teacher a lot harder. Disproving fantasies is generally difficult to do, since they are not scientifically or logically possible to refute (e.g. there are no dragons). It also elevates any kind of information on the internet beyond reasonable doubt, while at the same time lowering trust in what teachers say. There seems to exist a paradox that in order to be able to critically evaluate freely available knowledge on the Web, you need to have a solid base of knowledge first. If true, this would mean that we cannot practice or teach critical thinking and evaluation skills relying on open knowledge, which I would find hard to swallow.

The third issue emerging from our use of technology is the well-known fragmentation of knowledge. There is no recipe yet for handling this, and I personally can’t imagine a technical solution to be found where, for example, all content and data from whatever device and tool will eventually converge into a giant super knowledge sphere that expands as times move on, while still keeping older knowledge and data available and retrievable. The tendency more recently has been that production has emphasised disposability of utterances, data, and formats, thus greatly reducing half-life of knowledge and the media that carries it.

I have no solutions to suggest to the above-mentioned challenges. The idea of better informing learners about how to be critical on information, how to control the fragmentation of knowledge, and how to concentrate on a single task at a time certainly comes to mind, but it sounds a bit like beating education with education and turning learning into a precondition of itself. So far, research has only engaged in exposing the problems, but neither technical nor practical solutions have been investigated. Perhaps the biggest problem is that it is not an educational problem alone, but cuts across all activities and environments we engage in.

 

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