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'Arms dealers to the social media firms' disrupt the ability to learn

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by Louisa L.

A while back I was whinging that students were distracted from work by their new laptops. Two younger, tech savvy teachers told me there was ample research to show that kids effectively multi-tasked.

Technology clearly provides us with huge opportunities to teach and learn, and relying on research seemed better than relying on my limited observations. Assuming their evidence to be sound, I didn't follow it up.

Turns out my teaching mates were wrong; well-publicised philosophical writings in favour of multi-tasking are disproved by research.

The Washington Post recently republished, 'Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use from class' from by Professor Clay Shirky of New York University, summing up that research. Key conclusions, though not the methodology, are presented below. 

Negative long-term effects
“We’ve known for some time that multi-tasking is bad for the quality of cognitive work, and is especially punishing of the kind of cognitive work we ask of college students,” writes Professor Shirky.

“Even when multi-tasking doesn’t significantly degrade immediate performance, it can have negative long-term effects on 'declarative memory', the kind of focused recall that lets people characterise and use what they learned from earlier studying. “

“On top of this, multi-tasking doesn’t even exercise task-switching as a skill.” He cites Professor Cliff Nass's Stanford University research which reports that heavy multi-taskers are worse at choosing which task to focus on. Nass calls them “suckers for irrelevancy”.

“If it's me against Apple and Facebook, I lose”
Shirky describes the designers of operating systems as “arms dealers to the social media firms,” attacking the sustained attention essential to effective learning.

“Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on 'getting.' Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field, an effect that is strongest when the visual cue is slightly above and beside the area we’re focusing on.”

“The form and content of a Facebook update may be almost irresistible, but when combined with a visual alert in your immediate peripheral vision, it is – really, actually, biologically – impossible to resist. Our visual and emotional systems are faster and more powerful than our intellect; we are given to automatic responses when either system receives stimulus, much less both.”

“The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose,” writes Professor Shirky. “Computers are not inherent sources of distraction – they can in fact be powerful engines of focus – but latter-day versions have been designed to be, because attention is the substance which makes the whole consumer internet go.”

Shirky cites further research which shows that multi-tasking on laptops also disrupts other students. 

Exposing the myth
Decades back tobacco corporations said smoking was good for people. Then they fought bitterly against the overwhelming evidence that it destroyed health and killed millions.

Today the myth of effective multi-tasking has invaded the thinking of intelligent and articulate educators. The work of N Katherine Hayles starts from the simple and absolutely true premise guiding all effective teaching, to start where the kids are. It means developing a deep understanding of each student, engaging them, building on their strengths, minimising their weaknesses and challenging their misconceptions. This enables them to broaden their understanding of the world and how to act in it.

But when Hayes' suggestion is to start with students' attachment to a social media mega-industry, controlled and manipulated for profit by giant corporations, there's a big problem. Getting the truth out is a first step.


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