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Mr G Online
Apr 05

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This infographic on the Social Times appeared in my Zite feed the other day and it got me thinking about how we are preparing our students to use the Internet. While infographics are never definitive sources of valid information, the statistics provided leave us as teachers and/or parents with much to address. Since I’m firmly in the “The Internet is NOT making our children stupid, it just makes it easier for stupid people to show themselves to the world” camp, I’m going to put my thoughts out there in this post and address some of the points made in this infographic.

Let’s make it clear from the outset, the Internet “ain’t goin’ nowhere!” Regardless of continued fears and resistance from politicians, ‘shock jocks’, parents, teachers both young and old, and yes, even some students who haven’t had the exposure we assumed they all get, the Internet is and will continue to be the all pervasive information providing and social networking juggernaut we see every day in our lives.

Look no further than the first stats in this infographic. Regardless of the source or the overall accuracy, there is no doubt that a lot of our students do have an identity on the WWW from a very early age (90% by age 2??). My Facebook friends bombard me with countless unsolicited photos of their toddlers, photos that 15 years ago would have resided in a dusty photo album on the coffee table at their home.

Sit at any restaurant (or theatre, museum, train, hospital ward, church!) today and you will be surrounded by youngsters (50% by age 5?) blankly tapping away at smartphones and tablets so their parents can get some respite from them.

And the teens? Their whole life is online. Nearly all of them (95%?) always communicating (80% on social media?) from anywhere, anytime (49% online from phones?).

So that’s the reality we face. We do not live in 1950s Pleasantville anymore.  Therefore, keeping a curriculum shaped by leaders who grew up in Pleasantville, focussed on the 3 Rs but not technology is not facing the world we currently live in. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been teaching the Rs with great rigour for 25 years and continue to do so today. I just do it through technology  (AND ‘old school’ methods).

Now the big problem for me in all this is this misguided notion of ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. A lot of educators and parents use this as a reason for not ‘interfering’ with their children’s internet use. “They know more than me!” is the typical response….And it’s wrong. Being ‘born’ into a culture does not make you an expert in it. Just because a 2 year old has worked out the touch interface of an iPad doesn’t mean he can select appropriate tools to learn. Just because a 15 year old knows how to search YouTube for how -to guides to learn how to use a popular Web 2.0 tool doesn’t mean she can produce a quality presentation that will educate fellow classmates. Skill ≠ knowledge and understanding. Any teenager can mechanically drive an automatic car within a week of driving lessons. As parents, we still need to teach them to drive safely and responsibly.

Our kids aren’t stupid because of the Internet. They are sometime stupid on the Internet because they’re kids. They may have been born digital, but just like the rest of their life outside of the digital, they have much to learn in the digital world. And the rules we as adults understand outside the digital world still apply inside the digital world. So let’s look at what this infographic highlights and discuss how we should address it.

Blaming the Internet for Shorter Attention Span?

It is a constant cry from teachers everywhere – my class has no attention span. Fact or Fiction, complaining doesn’t address the issue. One thing that has become clear over the years is that more and more children are identifying themselves as Visual learners. There is no doubt we are living in a Visual World. When my parents were at school, TV didn’t exist, let alone the Internet and iPads. Books and newspapers were the only way to learn so children learned that way. Children were entranced by the written word and had to use their imagination to picture a character or a scene. Today, though, we live in a world where Pixar has replaced Shakespeare as the world’s great storyteller. Newspapers are replaced by TV News which is now being replaced by Online News. It’s the reality we face. It’s not going back to the old days. It’s not the internet’s fault though. Kids have become more visual so we have to present more visually. Teachers can’t expect their students to attentively listen to them talk or read to them for 20 minutes when their life experience is visual text. We do have to change our mode of teaching. We have to be more visual.

BUT (and I’ll be using that world a lot in the next few paragraphs)… there does still need to be balance. Parents need to still make reading part of their kids’ lives from birth. Parents need to hold back the iPad/DS as babysitter/entertainer while their children are developing their minds. Parents and Teachers have to command attention from these children by engaging with them, expecting their attention and a quality response. Don’t blame the internet if we let them replace us with it.

 Bad Habits from the Internet?

Left under trained, yes our so called ‘Digital Natives’ will fall victim to these bad habits. We could say that the proliferation of social media with its unlimited threads of comments, links, polls and information is breeding a generation of skim readers trained in reading 144 characters and nothing more. Keeping track of 1000 Twitter followers and  Facebook friends can often lead to missing important content amidst all the mindless guff. And doing all this while listening to music and replying to text messages can tax even the best multitasking minds.

BUT….

What are we as adults doing to teach them a better way? Knowing this is their natural way, teachers need to teach digital literacy skills so they know how to handle this information overload. Reflection through blogging or curating through social bookmarking needs to be part of the educational environment for these kids. Expectations for and lessons in detailed reading need to be commonplace. Just like we taught students how to read encyclopedias and textbooks in the pre-digital age, we have to TEACH them how to read the Internet. It’s not the Internet’s fault. It’s just a MUCH bigger version of the old reference source. It takes a different approach. And too many of us in schools haven’t recognised that yet.

Internet Blamed for Poor Research?

No denying this is an issue. Copy and paste, Google as reference in bibliographies, Wikipedia plagiarism, relying on poor quality links on Page one of 200,000 are all commonplace problems in the classroom.

BUT….

Is it the Internet’s fault? Are kids stupid because the Internet is full of rubbish or are we stupid because we haven’t taught kids how to access the most comprehensive source of information in existence? We are not doing a good job of teaching students how to research in the digital age. It’s a big job and just setting research assignments without spending a large chunk of our literacy program teaching them how to search for credible sources on line is not helping. How much do we as teachers really know about how Google works? What are we modelling to our students? Are we teaching them how to use Wikipedia responsibly or just banning its use because we don’t have time to show them its benefits. When have we shown them how to research through interviews, surveys, searching for primary sources online ( they are everywhere if we can get past Answers.com!), organising excursions/field trips, inviting/seeking out experts as guest speakers? Do we teach left/right wing bias that is found in textbooks and literature past and present or just blame the Internet for all the misrepresentations of history? We’ve got a lot of work to do as teachers to prepare our children as the Internet continues to exponentially grow in size.

Plausible Solutions?

I’m not doubting the issues raised in this infographic are not real. And yes, the Internet is a factor. But it’s not the Internet’s fault. We, parents and teachers, are responsible for how our children develop. They are growing up in a world foreign to the one we were kids in. As adults we have to be proactive in helping them not become stupid on the Internet.

I like the four points at the end.

Limit Internet Use and Encourage other interests. At home and school. Children need balance and variety in their lives. This needs to start early. Much to his dismay, my son, unlike all his mates, was “denied his natural right” to a video game console until he was 11. During these years of trauma, he learned to appreciate reading, Lego, role playing, puppetry, history and geography as well as the necessary doses of football, cricket and basketball. Like his sister, whom he is very close to, he developed an ability to concentrate for long periods of time and entertain himself without technology. They still got their dose of the internet regularly, with and without Dad, but the word boredom has never been in their vocabulary.

At school, we need to get the balance right too. Don’t over rely on the Internet. Entertainment value does not always equate to educational value. Sometimes some left over cookies from Camp can engage your students in learning fractions more than a whizbang ‘interactive game from the internet’ projected onto a whiteboard screen. Expose students to old school and digital age. The natural world can still be a wonderful experience.

Emotional Intelligence and Active Role. The Internet and the iPad should never have replaced parents as entertainment options. Kids today who have bad attention spans are the result of lack of human interaction. If we don’t talk to our kids, they won’t know how to communicate. We should be the first port of entertainment, not technology. Same at school. This current push in some circles to replace teaching with technology is ridiculous. Humans must interact with humans to grow up as humans. Nothing more to say on that.

And as for this Digital divide between the natives and the immigrants – get together, old and young. It’s a multicultural society we live in. Get on the technology with each other. Adults, learn some of those new fangled Web 2.0 tools and enjoy them with your kids instead of making excuses. Kids, let Mum and Dad in on your online experiences. Just like families used to enjoy time together before the digital age, make the effort to enjoy online time together.

Adults, we have to be part of the solution. Don’t blame the internet. It’s not making kids stupid. We’re letting it. Don’t let it happen.

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8 Responses to “Ensuring “the Internet doesn’t make our children stupid””

  1. Michael Ozeryansky Says:

    What a wonderful piece, Mark! Thank you!
    We’re at Smartifico are going to help parents in doing exactly this with our “new fangled Web 2.0 tool”

  2. mgleeson Says:

    Hi, Michael. Thanks for the vote of approval. I just had a look at Smartifico. Looks interesting even in its sketchy form. Anything that encourage joint parent/involvement on line is worth looking into.

  3. Michael Ozeryansky Says:

    Hi Mark,

    Thanks for your approval too! it’s really important to have it for a startup at the beginning! I’d like to reserve a right to ask for your review when we’re up and running (in a month or so) :)

  4. rolat2 Says:

    Thank you for this explcit and realistic reflection. Yes we are responsible and we are to encourage thinking, application, empathy and responsibility.

    • mgleeson Says:

      Thanks for comment, rolat2. Love your 4 word summary – thinking, application, empathy and responsibility. That is it in a nutshell.

  5. Viviene Tuckerman Says:

    I think the whole digital natives and digital immigrants is a nonsense. I am 58 and a lot more tech savvy in my approach to integration than many very young teachers!
    I also think that kids need a lot of time doing other things away from the computer. So do I! Lots of great things to do done with friends and family outside and board games, reading are still as wonderful as ever. Take some time to smell the roses, but do understand the internet and social media is not going away.
    We need to keep up to date as educators, and as parents!

    • mgleeson Says:

      I hear you, Viv. It’s nothing to do “technology ancestry”. It’s about the “will work it outs ” and the “won’t try to work it outs”. My whole school education experience was without computers. It was 1991 when I decided to lug an Apple Mac into my car one school holiday and work it out myself. The rest is history.
      But what my teachers and parents taught me about learning, determination and common sense enabled me to become the creative, responsible tech user I am today. I was lucky to learn that before the digital age and made silly mistakes as a kid before being exposed to the Internet. Today’s generation is born into it and needs to be educated while using it. That is why the Ed system has to be different from the 70s and 80s when we were learning.

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