Complaints that today's mass culture produces a generation of "screenagers"--hip to techno-wizardry and short on the basics--are common. But not all scholars of cognition, teaching, and learning see new media as inimical to education

New media go to school

Joan Lippert

Imagine a sixth-grade boy attending Modest Middle School in Anyville, USA. His teacher has asked him to find out why bananas turn brown in the refrigerator more quickly than on the counter. In his school's small library, the encyclopedia and food science books don't answer his question; at the public library he gets the same results. He has wasted three hours and is tired, frustrated, and empty-handed.

Two years later, Anyville teachers are still asking sixth-graders about bananas. But these children have an advantage over their predecessors: The school now has access to the World Wide Web. The girl who gets the banana question this year spends an interesting hour searching agricultural school web sites and online libraries, then thinks of the Chiquita website, which e-mails her the answer.

One child used books; another used the Internet. Other types of new media (from oldest to most recent) include TV, videos, computer software, videodisks, and virtual reality. Will children who learn from these media be different from children who learn from books and teachers? Is there a difference between writing on a computer and writing on paper? Though the new media are often portrayed in glowing terms--and paid for by cuts in other areas, such as music or physical education--there is "no research that proves that computer technology is offering us any benefits," says Dr. Kimberly S. Young, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh and author of Caught in the Net (NY: John Wiley, 1998). However, there is also no evidence that the new media are harmful to a child's developing mind. In 1994, only 35 percent of schools had Internet access, according to one U.S. Department of Education paper, so new technology has not been around long enough for researchers to draw conclusions, says Dr. Robbie McClintock, director of Columbia's Institute for Learning Technologies. Lack of evidence has not, however, squelched debate on several subjects:

  • Writing skills: "High school and college students tell me their writing suffers from their being online," says Young. "Online, you can write as you think. Typos are fine. You don't have to think about spelling or grammar." In the classroom or in more formal writing, though, cyberspeak and stream-of-consciousness are not going to fly.

    On the other hand, "As a college professor, the first thing I noticed when people started using word processors was that they wrote longer term papers," says Dr. Robert Sylwester, professor of education at the University of Oregon and author of A Celebration of Neurons: An Educator's Guide to the Human Brain (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1995). "They were not necessarily better term papers, and the style was more conversational . . . but a computer frees you to write as fast as you can think. In my opinion, computers have improved writing."

    Or perhaps computers simply add a new kind of literacy, says Dr. Jo Anne Kleifgen, associate professor of linguistics and education at Columbia Teachers College. "One feature of web pages is visual presentation. Students now write using formats, fonts, and bullets to create text bites similar to those they see online--in other words, they're constructing hypermedia," she says. "We don't know what the long-term effects are, but it's possible that instead of taking away from other forms of literacy, it's an addition."

  • Attention span: "When children don't like something on the web, they just click it off," says Young. It's a bad habit that may interfere with their ability to concentrate, she says. Counters McClintock, "Does attention span mean docility in putting up with unengaging stuff, or the ability to be intensely engaged over a long period with something one judges meaningful? I opt for the latter and think that much interactive technology enhances their experience and taste for real concentration."

    The interested student is more likely to remember than the disinterested student, and most visual media are interesting. A 1997 study from Leiden University in the Netherlands showed that children remember more when they learn via a video rather than a book. Now that web pages can contain sound and moving images, they can be more like videos. A 1996 U.S. Department of Education publication1 describes two schools that created "smart classrooms" equipped with new media succh as computer-assisted desig software, computer networks, satellite dishes, and (in one shop) a computer-controlled manufacturing system. Student scores rose in academic subjects and critical thinking; attendance increased and discipline problems dropped.

  • Entertainment vs. reality: When a child looks at information on a CD-ROM, video, or software program, he gets entertainment, pretty pictures, dancing text, says Young. When that child then tries to read a book, he has to exercise his own imagination, which may be untrained. Thus reading could become unenjoyable.

    On the other hand, instead of reading about the circulatory system or the creation of a star, a child using a CD-ROM encyclopedia can view it herself. These demonstrations are more like reality than a diagram in a book. Further, for a younger child who doesn't have the knowledge to construct a mental model to think through an abstract problem, visual media can fill the gaps, says Dr. John Black, a professor in the Department of Human Development's cognitive studies program at Teachers College.

  • Screen vs. brain: What about the effect of new media on developing brains? It may be too soon to know whether new media have any lasting neurologic effects, good or bad. In Japan in December 1997, however, a televised cartoon induced seizures in hundreds of children. Rapid flashes of alternating red and blue light can cause photosensitive epilepsy, says researcher Graham Harding of Aston University's Department of Vision Sciences in Birmingham, U.K. British guidelines prevent transmission of dangerous color and light sequences, but the United States has no such guidelines. Fortunately, nothing of the kind has been reported by software or Internet users.

    Internet addiction may be more of a problem. Though it's not yet in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Young has compared this kind of behavior to gambling: A person is preoccupied with the medium, spends more and more time using it, can't cut back, feels irritable when not using it, uses it more than intended, has had personal problems because of it, has lied about it, and uses it as an escape. So far, though, effects are considered psychological, not physical. Further, Internet addicts tend to play games or get hooked on chat or sexual sites, not on online libraries or educational CD-ROMs, says Young. It is not likely that educational media will be a gateway to addictive behavior.

    New media have other benefits as well. For one, e-mail and video-mail mean that students can work with teachers on their own time schedules and from a distance. Students also can move beyond any one teacher's personal information bank. And new media may enhance collaborative projects for many students. Says Black, "One study showed that when a student does a program or views a video clip online and then comments on it via e-mail, she'll make more comments than in a classroom. That's because you've removed the social context that some people find inhibiting."

    For those who lament the potential loss of the printed word, new media actually give students greater access to the written records of our society. "The Internet and www-type resources are an extension of the book," says McClintock. "The Internet is much more a threat to broadcast media, because they both can reach millions of people at the same time."

    In addition, children with language learning disabilities can benefit enormously from computerized instruction. For example, when a child's speaks late or writes poorly because his brain is slow to process phonemes--the sounds inside words--talking computer games and programs that stretch out the rapid acoustic elements he was missing can help.

    The new media can equalize resources between regions or social classes. A child who grows up in Anyville is no longer at a disadvantage. Says McClintock, "Networked multimedia can make the richest, most powerful resources of our culture available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. All children will benefit, but the least advantaged children can benefit the most."

    All in all, are the new media good or bad for learning? Drs. Black, McClintock, and others see the question as too simple. "We don't ask whether books are good or bad for learning; we try to discriminate between good books and bad books," says McClintock. Adds Black, "The technology or medium doesn't matter. What matters is the design of the instructional materials. The strongest learning method is to get students to figure things out for themselves." For example, using the World Wide Web, a student can learn at his own pace and access extra materials if he wishes. Then he makes observations and works with a group or teacher to shape what he knows.

    "We've just begun to see the opening up of hitherto closed resources," notes McClintock. "It will require an immense amount of work, but I think that eventually, new media will lead to a tremendous democratization" of education.

    1. "Benefits of Technology Use," Getting America's Students Ready for the 21st Century: Meeting the Technology Literacy Challenge. U.S. Department of Education, June 1996.

    Guiding students through hell and through cyberspace
    Columbia's Institute for Learning Technologies has helped more than 70 schools establish high-speed Internet connections. But hooking up to the Internet is not enough: Students need to learn how to find their way. ILT's Study Place, which includes book text, subject guides, artwork, and more, helps orient students in cyberspace.

    One of the most developed "study spaces" in the Study Place is Digital Dante. Users can see not only the complete text of the Divine Comedy but study the books Dante himself probably used for inspiration; read criticism of the epic poem; access other classic works; make e-mail contact with students, scholars, and professors; and, finally, view student work. One of the more impressive of these is the multimedia depiction of purgatory, hell, and paradise based on contemporary figures created by students at the Frederick Douglass Academy, a public school in Harlem. Students wrote the text, illustrated it with photos they took at the Cloisters, and added sound, creating an impressively Dantesque environment. --Joan Lippert

    Related links:

  • Compact for Responsive Electronic Writing

  • Bill Daly, "English Language and Literacy Education on the Net," Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne, Australia

  • "Computer addictions entangle students," American Psychological Association Monitor

  • Harvey Blume, "Joey Plugs In" (on autism and the Internet), Feed

  • Todd Oppenheimer, "The Computer Delusion," Atlantic Monthly 280.1 (1997): 45-62

  • Pamela Mendels, "Critic of Technology in Schools Faces Tough Audience" (on Todd Oppenheimer addressing educators), New York Times, April 29, 1998

  • JOAN LIPPERT, a medical writer based in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., is a former managing editor of Science Digest and Health. Her work also has appeared in Encyclopedia Britannica and in many popular magazines.