Monthly Archives: June 2010

Technology and the Brain

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal (“Does the Internet Make You Dumber?” by Nicholas Carr) and the New York Times (“Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price” by Matt Richtel) both ran articles on people whose mental agility was suffering from too much information all the time from the Internet. Both articles could leave the impression that technology is a real problem for people and has primarily negative consequences.

But people use their technology in very different ways, so it’s very important to carefully sort out exactly what these articles are saying . . . and what they’re not saying.

The Wall Street Journal article focuses on the results of constant distraction and interruption: an increase in “visual literacy skills” at the cost of less rigorous thought.

One story is told of a class at Cornell University in which some students could use Internet-connected laptops during a lecture, while other students had to shut their computers. Carr notes that the students who browsed the Web had less retention. But the article doesn’t address what happened if students took notes on their laptops vs. taking notes by hand. Notes taken with a laptop could potentially be more detailed (if one is a fast typist) and more legible – and therefore lead to greater and deeper understanding. This, however, is not addressed.

Carr contrasts the Internet and books, saying, “Reading a long sequence of pages helps us develop a rare kind of mental discipline.” Some of the use to which people put the Internet is reading long pages of journal articles and in-depth email communications. The Internet and “scattered” do not have to coincide. It’s perhaps a bit ironic that Carr doesn’t acknowledge that people are using the Internet to read the very article in which he is saying that using the Internet is making us lose our mental discipline!

Richtel’s article—which, being quite a bit longer than Carr’s, invites the reader to an even more in-depth and thoughtful experience—reports the tale of a man who overlooked the most important communication of his life in an overflowing email inbox. It broadens out to discuss his family and the effects that technology is having on their individual lives and family life.

Richtel discusses the stimulation provided by multitasking and an ongoing flow of information and the lasting effects becoming inured to being barraged can have on the brain and on the person’s extra-Internet life, with disconnected thoughts and inability to focus. Because the family Richtel focuses on is struggling with gadget over-use (addiction?) the article has a negative tone overall.

Both articles make the point that it is possible to use technology in ways that affect our brains, our work, and our family lives for the worse. What they don’t aim to do is show the other side of the picture. And that is why it’s very important for the reader to approach these articles with thought and care—to see what they’re saying and what they’re not saying. Once that’s clear, then considering whether one wants to make a change in the way one is using technology is a good thing to consider.

National Common Core Standards: Necessary or Not?

Released by the state school chiefs and governors yesterday, a set of English Language Arts and Mathematics standards that the Obama administration hopes states will adopt is now available on the Common Core State Standards Initiative website. Alaska and Texas opted not to participate in the development.

The goal of the new standards is to unify and make coherent the vision of what K–12 students should know and be able to do, which currently is ruled by each state’s own benchmarks. How the standards will be taught is up to states and teachers.

The current benchmarks vary widely, making school adjustment difficult for students who change schools and comparison of schools in different states in order to judge how schools are performing in their task of educating young people. They also mean that there is duplicate effort 50 times over, as each state addresses the same questions with its own set of personnel and resources.

There are several objections to this plan. One is the loss of local control in states and communities. Another is the need for different approaches to teacher education and massive professional development outlays for current teachers. The cost of textbooks and materials and the need to change standardized tests also loom.

Another type of objection is to the standards themselves. While states in which the standards are seen as a step up seem more likely to sign on—especially as accepting the standards is a criterion for a chance to share in the Race to the Top money—states that already have rigorous standards are not eager to join in. California, Virginia, and Indiana have been named as states that are hesitant to adopt the new standards.

We encourage you to take a look at the standards using the link above, and to take our survey to make your views on the national standards known.


Who Profits from For-Profit Schools?

In May, I wrote about for-profit schools, and over the Memorial Day weekend, I found a valuable source. The PBS program “Frontline” ran a special in May called “College Inc.” On this special, they explored the for-profit education industry. The program features interviews with school personnel, students, supporters, and critics.

Widely-publicized issues with for-profit schools—that students receive degrees for which they are not prepared because, for example, they have no practical experience in the field; that students come out with enormous amounts of debt and no job prospects; that students enroll in schools that are not accredited, not realizing that their degree will not have the value they expect—are explored on the program.

The University of Phoenix, currently the largest college in the United States, is explored, as is the for-profit education business from the point of view of the investor.

The possible reshaping of how Federal financial aid to hold the for-profits to a higher measure is also explored. Nearly half of the students who defaulted on student loans within three years of graduation calls into question the value of a for-profit degree to boost a student’s earnings.

And those in charge of accreditation of universities are also looking more closely at how the accreditation process works with for-profit schools.

To view the program, which is available online, go to this special section of the PBS website. While you’re there, you may also want to look at the responses from the colleges, and check out the 1053 viewer comments.

And, because one of the most striking stories in the special is that of a student who ended up with $200,000 in student debt and unable to get the job she trained for because the school did not have the proper accreditation, you may wish to read our article on “Financial Aid Options for College.”