Wed. Nov 30th, 2022

New technologies, we often hear, are rewiring the younger generation’s brains, and not in a good way.  Social media receives much of the blame.  Perhaps you’ve seen the scare headlines:  “Social Media Is Changing Your Brain In 5 Terrifying Ways.”  “Teen Mental Health Is Plummeting, and

Social Media is a Major Contributing Cause ,” “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” The high price society pays for social media”  Or how about this:  The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future.

According to such widely read commentators as Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge, social media:

  • Is as addictive as drugs, especially for teens seeking peer recognition and validation.
  • Undercuts the brain’s ability to block out distractions.
  • Creates an atmosphere of social surveillance. 
  • Rewards psychologically damaging, narcissistic and sadistic behavior.
  • Diminishes people’s ability to sustain prolonged focused attention
  • Crowds out more productive activities.
  • Drives social fragmentation and political polarization, fraying democracy.
  • Is toxic to girls’ mental health, contributing to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-loathing, and self-harm.

These are, of course, gross generalizations that require greater nuance and specificity than shock headlines typically provide.  That’s not to say that such hyperbolic claims don’t rest on a kernel of truth.  Algorithmically curated feeds are indeed designed to engage users and do encourage forms of multitasking that can inhibit sustained concentration.  

But broadening the timeframe makes it clear that anxiety, depression, self-harm, and teen suicide aren’t 21st century developments.  Teenage suicide rates peaked in the late 1980s and early 1990s before plunging around the turn of the century and then rising again after 2005.

Outrage over social media is only the latest example of blaming new technologies for societal ills. 

Of course, social media also has positive aspects that critics tend to minimize.  Given today’s smaller families and lower birthrates, social media has become indispensable in helping the young find connection, acceptance, and positive support.

But let’s step back and revisit issues of greater relevance to college teaching:

  • Are there generational differences in how students learn?  
  • Do today’s students have unique learning styles and needs?
  • Would undergraduates benefit from approaches that rely less on textbooks and lectures?

In my view, the answer to each of these questions is “yes” – but not necessarily in the ways than techno-determinists assume.  A decade ago, research conducted by the Pew Internet Project and by Common Sense Media and journalists’ interviews reported that classroom teachers reported that technology had:

  • Hampered students’ attention spans and ability to focus and undercut their ability to persevere.
  • Forced teachers to work harder to capture and hold students’ attention spans.
  • Contributed to a decline in the depth and analysis of students’ written work.

Although no one knows for certain whether intensive exposure to technology has shortened attention spans, fueled narcissism, diminished the ability to recall information, or displaced long-form, sustained reading, it does appear that certain characteristics of contemporary digital culture may have had an impact on learning.  These include an increase in:

  • The prevalence of hyper-fast cuts in film, advertising, and other forms of video.
  • Exposure to intense visual and audio stimuli. 
  • The availability of highly engaging visual entertainment and other distractions.
  • Instant access to information and to quick answers through search engines and Wikipedia.

But the issue isn’t simply technological.  Today’s undergraduates are far more diverse than their predecessors not only in their race or ethnicity or class background or age or immigration status, but in their prior knowledge, level of preparation, and familiarity and facility with and previous exposure to college reading and workload expectations.

So how should this alter our teaching?  

  1. Since our students have grown up in a culture of information abundance, it’s more important than ever to help them learn how to more effectively locate relevant, high quality information and rigorously evaluate sources.
  2. In today’s highly contentious, intensely partisan, polarized environment, it’s essential that students better understand the difference between opinion and evidence- and theory-based argumentation.
  3. Many of our students are products of intensive, highly engaged parenting, and therefore need mentors as well as instructors, figures willing to serve as guides, tutors, adviser, and supporters.
  4. Given the prevalence of distractions, taking active steps to engage and motivate students and keep them on track are all the more important.  We know how to do this:
  • Provide structure and clear timetables.
     
  • Be highly specific about your role and your students’ responsibilities.
     
  • Divide complex material into more manageable chunks.
     
  • Embed more active learning activities into your instruction.  In addition to brainstorming sessions, debates, and role play exercises, make use of technologies that allow students to annotate readings, map concepts, causal factors, and networks, visualize data, examine etymologies, create virtual exhibitions, curate content and sources, mine texts, and construct timelines.
     
  • Sell your readings, teach skills that can make reading more efficient and effective (such as reading from the outside in and outlining an author’s argument), and make sure to integrate discussion of the readings in class.
     
  • Permit students to present their work in novel ways, including digital stories, infographics, photo essays, podcasts, and contributions to virtual encyclopedias.
     

Today’s students have distinctive learning and mental health needs and learning and communication styles and instructors need to alter their pedagogies to accommodate these needs.  If we hope to deepen and maximize lasting learning, increase active participation in the learning process, and improve performance among the so-called digital natives, our pedagogies need to evolve.

Business as usual won’t cut it.

You may have read a recent piece in Forbes entitled “Holographic Patients To Help Train The Next Generation Of Medics,” which describes the use of mixed reality, advanced simulations, VR/AR powered practice surgical procedures, and life-like holographic scenarios in the training of doctors, nurses, and other medical personnel.  

It has become increasingly clear that healthcare workers can acquire factual knowledge more efficiently than simply from lectures, and that for those invested with literal life and death responsibilities, exposure to realistic situations in which they need to make real-time decisions and perform in under true-to-life circumstances can greatly improve their preparation.  

Healthcare education should be a spur and inspiration for those of us in the liberal arts.  If more active forms of learning are the future of healthcare education, then shouldn’t the rest of us follow suit?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.



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