Back to the Future

I saw this television show once–“How Star Trek Made the Future” or something similar– that showed how all sorts of things, from cell phones to talking computers, were first popularized on the science fiction television show. Science fiction had written about these sorts of things before, but seeing them on television made them seem so possible and real that they inspired a generation of software developers and engineers.

I loved the space program in the 1960’s and I stayed up all night to listen to the moon landing. We love technology. (I say that knowing that I am not sure who is in that “we.” Americans? Men in their 50? Women? Teenagers?) The problem, or one problem anyway, is that this technology is all wrapped up in consumer capitalist culture, which is often an ugly mess, especially here in the U.S. where discarded electronics fill dump sites.

That’s what I was thinking when I read this:

Young people think they can perform two challenging tasks at once, Meyer acknowledges, but “they are deluded,” he declares. It’s difficult for anyone to properly evaluate how well his or her own mental processes are operating, he points out, because most of these processes are unconscious. And, Meyer adds, “there’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking. They may like to do it, they may even be addicted to it, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s far better to focus on one task from start to finish.”

You’ll Never Learn!” Annie Murphy Paul

The article does a good job of summarizing recent research– ongoing research– showing that the human brain is not built for multitasking. It’s dangerous to talk on the phone while driving; if you try to do two things at once– or three– you end up doing neither as well as you think. It’s especially dramatic when it comes to activities that require sustained concentration, such as learning in general or writing in particular.

I think a lot of us took that same sort of technological optimism into the classroom and promoted the idea that these kids, our students– digital natives we called them– would be capable of miraculous feats made possible by new communication technologies. As it turns out, things are more difficult than we at first imagined. I’m hoping that the next stage of change in educational technology will be more realistic.

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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