I was up and working for over 50 of the last 60 hours up till midnight last night, so this week’s “Unfiltered Fridays” comes to you on Saturday. It’s about a subject close to my heart: textbooks, and their progressive disappearance from pre-college classrooms.
I’m the co-author of an introductory college-level textbook on meteorology, now in its fourth edition. (Its cost as a new book has been driven up so high by the publisher that I tell students to buy it used; that way I also do not derive a cent in royalties from my students, which I think is ethically responsible.) So I have end-to-end knowledge of educational books, from their creation to their use in the classroom.
Over the years, in my experience, college students as a whole have gotten away from reading–and not just reading from old-fashioned books. One UGA student a few years ago told me, to my astonishment, that he’d quit reading as soon as high school was over. Since college students are customers these days, the nation’s universities have implicitly responded to the market demand for less reading. A much-discussed book on higher education a few years ago revealed that 32 percent of undergraduate students do not take any courses with more than 40 pages of reading assigned a week.
I think this is nuts. When I was growing up, the phrase was “Reading Is Fundamental.” It still is, if you want to succeed in life, or just be an informed citizen. But do our institutions still believe this?
As electronic devices have gained market share on paper books, educational institutions have tried to keep up–and perhaps encourage more reading?–by going high-tech. Move everything online, it’s just the same only newer and better… that’s the mantra. And because the future is all-electronic, this isn’t just good marketing–it is being proactive and futuristic. What’s not to like? If you oppose it, you are a Luddite, we are told. You’re exactly like those who opposed whiteboards or TV or lantern slides. You. Are. Wrong.
Well, hang on. I’m a scientist. I do educational research, in fact, as well as research in my specialty of the physics of wind. Did anyone do large controlled studies to see what would happen to reading comprehension with a shift from the venerable technology known as the book, to a computer screen? Not to my knowledge. There’s no educational equivalent of the FDA, to make sure that we don’t create the modern educational equivalent of thalidomide babies. Educational institutions jumped in feet-first, hang the consequences.
Problem: there is now a research literature documenting the differences between reading a book and reading online. And, more generally, there are several books by prominent authors, as well as much research literature, which outline the impact of immersion in a digital world on our brains. In the presence of our digital devices, the indications are that we are getting more distracted, our conversations are getting shallower and rarer (especially more free-form conversations), and we are comprehending less when we do read from them.
And this is true for adults. Imagine the impact on children, who did not have the decades of pre-electronic immersion that people my age did before the Internet hit.
So, to emphasize the main point: there are good reasons to think that the transition from book-reading to electronic media is a major shift with major educational consequences that are not all good. I can list several advantages for the e-book movement myself (faster updates; ability to incorporate moving images, etc.), but I have not been a first adopter of these technologies in my classroom at UGA for a simple reason: my students themselves aren’t big fans of tech in education. Now, some are; you’ll see a few students who maximize the possibilities and minimize the downsides. But the others? They know that a lot of the software is junk created by corporations to make money. Some of them realize that they really aren’t paying attention as well online… they get distracted too easily. They didn’t come to school to stare at a screen and not learn from the person, the teacher, in front of them. When the tech breaks down, they see me using a marker instead of an animation, and it makes more sense to them. And when they read and make notes in the margins and write things out in class instead of typing notes furiously into a laptop, they find that they learn better.
So, at the college level in 2016 I still use hard-copy textbooks and I promote face-to-face communication as a means of learning, and carefully manage my use of tech for those instances where it is clearly superior to older forms of delivery. That’s not being a Luddite. That’s adopting what I call a “highest and best use” strategy of technology stemming from experience, feedback and the research literature, instead of swallowing the marketing hype of the corporations. Perhaps If I have done a disservice to my students in this way, they aren’t saying so to the college, university, state and national organizations that have given me awards. And some of my former students have done quite well, in meteorology and in other pursuits.
This brings us back to the Clarke County School District. Since 2014 our district has been committed to a “one-to-one” program, putting a computer in the hands of each student starting in the third grade. Millions of dollars are being spent on obtaining, repairing, “refreshing,” etc. etc. the computers.
I’ve seen first-hand how effective this technology can be in the hands of a self-motivated, older student–my high-school mentee, the meteorology whiz. He’s visualizing and learning weather concepts in ninth grade that I didn’t know about until at least college. Awesome.
But then there are all the other stories I am hearing as I talk to educators, mentors, students, and parents in CCSD. Stories of how the tech has taken over the classroom. Teachers ‘teaching’ to entire classes of middle schoolers who are “tuned out,” surfing the Web and disappearing into chatrooms they have no business being in. And electronic devices are addictive like drugs: there is a reason that the phrase “Crackberry” became popular well over a decade ago to describe early adopters of tech who could not break away from it. Here are the concerns of a noted educational innovator that echo our community’s concerns.
I’m troubled by this. I personally know many of the top educators in my discipline at the college level, and we generally don’t go all-in for tech. Even with college students. If you asked us, “Would you do it with third graders or sixth graders with limited supervision and easily breached firewalls?” you would get incredulous laughter. Many of us have gotten rid of laptops in our own college classrooms, because of the documented negative effects of laptop use on comprehension.
This is not a popular view. I don’t care. Maybe it takes an award-winning teacher to stand up to the power of large corporations, to contest the knee-jerk belief that tech is our savior, and to resist the lure of sexy-sounding initiatives to say something obvious. And what is that obvious statement? That humans learn best from each other, and worst from remote automation designed to turn a profit.
Maybe my hunch is wrong, but I would sure like to see an independent study of the impact of tech in our local classrooms. After the investment of so many millions of dollars, aren’t the taxpayers (including parents) owed an analysis of how well this experiment is going? Will we get that kind of transparency out of CCSD? Will we find out that the money could have been better spent on more teachers and parapros–especially parapros at the earlier grades? Has our all-in on tech risked the creation of the educational equivalent of thalidomide babies, students who will emerge from our schools with deformities caused by years lost on the Web and chatrooms while the teachers taught in vain? If so, it won’t show up until ‘birth,’ after these students depart CCSD. They will have been in the classroom, showing up, getting grades, getting promoted, the works. But will they be educated? If so, wonderful. If not, it’s trouble for our community.
I’m a scientist and a teacher. I ask questions and seek answers, especially when what I see is at odds with what I know from decades in the classroom. This is what I would do on the Clarke County Board of Education.
Thanks to retired educator Tommie Farmer of the Athens NAACP for inspiring this blog post with her own penetrating questions on this general subject.
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