It’s the marketing, stupid!

I’ve said before that we– those of us who love computers and new communication technologies and who adapted them early and often– have often been very wrong in our initial assumptions. In the late 1990s we thought that multitasking was a technologically enhanced way to work and learn and play. As it turns out, brains don’t work or play or learn that way at all.

Or, rather, brains can work and learn and play that way, but only by severely limiting the quality of work or play or learning. It’s probably fine to have the radio on the background as you write, but you can’t email with one hand while answering questions in an online classroom with the other; both email and forum postings will be littered with errors at best. Focus matters.

We also believed that our students were increasingly what we called “digital natives” who would not struggle to learn these new technologies in the way we had. This begs some interesting questions. Here’s how one writer, Arthur Goldstuck, puts it:

How is it possible that the typical child is so much more adept at using gadgets than the typical adult? How did we come to stereotype the neighbour’s 12-year-old son as the expert who will sort out our computers, cellphones and TV programming? (“The Myth of the Digital Native“)

In my experience, this idea never held water. At first, I did meet  at least some students, mostly boys, who were fascinated with computers and so knew a lot about them. Very quickly, though, it became clear that students’ interests were very different from my own as a college teacher. I knew about the web and .html, they knew about My Space and video games. Facebook didn’t change that at all.

Goldstuck argues that the difference is developmental. At 15 you are more capable of learning than at, say, 50. That may be true. I think he’s also missing the obvious: a lot of the difference has to do with marketing. Young people, who are arguably more vulnerable to ads, are interested in certain technologies because that’s what they have been sold. That may not help education at all.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol]

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