When it comes to technology, education, and adolescents, how much is enough, and how much is too much?
As any English teacher can tell you, sometimes the right answer to a given question is "It depends." Recently a string of stories in the national press have explored the role technology plays in our culture and particularly in the lives of youth. A small sampling:
- The home computer is not a cure-all to educational ills in America. (NYTimes, August 24)
- Our 21st Century brains are in desperate need of down time to process information. (NYTimes, July 10)
- Given access to technology, children can learn amazing things without any adult supervision whatsoever. (Sugata Mitra TED Talk, July 2010)
- "No-Tech" Tuesdays at Hyde School. (Charlotte Observer or Daily American, September 2010)
If an entire school community pulled itself out of the techno-stream for 90 minutes each weeknight, opportunities to slow down the brain and single-task the world might present itself.
Regardless of their potential negatives, we can rest assured that computers, the Internet, and smart phones are not going to ebb in our culture anytime soon. Microwaves had more obvious health risks and question marks in its first decades, but our society chose simplicity and speed over perceived risk then. Likewise, the technological revolution that continues its exponential pace might carry with it certain health risks, but the speed and simplicity in retrieving information is far too vital for our current lifestyles. We will happily take those health risks. You can have our Droids, iPads, and Netbooks when you take them from our cold, disconnected hands.
Does a "No-Tech Tuesday" help us with the problems technology presents? Computers are too often used as a distraction or for entertainment rather than for acquiring information or educating ourselves. We are moving too quickly and multitasking in such a non-stop way that our minds can't chew on the information. Removing all technology during one school day each week doesn't really get to the heart of either of those problems.
Rather than dropping technology one day each week, perhaps blocking it for an hour or two each evening would be a more powerful approach. If an entire school community pulled itself out of the techno-stream for 90 minutes each weeknight, opportunities to slow down the brain and single-task the world might present itself. Doing so in the evening, in a family or dormitory environment, would have to help build real connection over virtual connection.
And just like P90X, the repeated daily act might even create a habit.
Ultimately, Sugata Mitra's amazing TED talk should remind us that, for all of the risks and reasons for us to be cautious about technology, the power of motivated children and adolescents combined with access to an Internet's worth of endless information holds far too much potential and possibility. It is worth the risk; the question is how to keep the beast properly leashed.