In defence of the interweb

I find much to enjoy in Orion Magazine, but sometimes there is an attitude within its agrarian approach which I find somewhat distasteful. That is a tendency to write off communication technology without seriously considering its context or the ways in which it can be channeled into positive uses. Lowell Monke’s piece “Charlotte’s Webpage: Children and Computers” is a case in point.

While Monke is not entirely negative about the use of computers in education, he does leave half-developed research hanging and ignores contextual details that could run counter to his argument. For example early on in the article he notes:

“There have been no advances over the past decade that can be confidently attributed to broader access to computers,” said Stanford University professor of education Larry Cuban in 2001, summarizing the existing research on educational computing. “The link between test-score improvements and computer availability and use is even more contested.” Part of the problem, Cuban pointed out, is that many computers simply go unused in the classroom. But more recent research, including a University of Munich study of 174,000 students in thirty-one countries, indicates that students who frequently use computers perform worse academically than those who use them rarely or not at all.

What is lacking in this article (and possibly in the original survey) is any breakdown of how those students are using computers. The experience of using a computer, particularly one connected to the internet, cannot be reduced to a monolith. While the cases of children simply killing time online are numerous, there are also plenty of examples of children demonstrating and enhancing their imaginations in ways that significantly benefit from access to the world wide web.

More fundamental, however, is the article’s commentary on how children weaned on what now passes for the information superhighway can find the real world dull and often want to retreat back online. There is a danger of exaggerating this risk, particularly when few educators or parents would be too worried if it were books their children were reading rather than (potentially) exploring online, developing their own narratives in MMORPGs, sharing their nascent musical creations on myspace, or even learning more about their local community.

Used carefully, the internet has a huge amount to offer when it comes to connecting people in a given locality. Aside from very small towns, the connecting power of the net allows people to discover others with shared (or fundamentally opposed) interests from whom we can learn. It connects us to a much more varied range of issues and fosters a very positive form of emergent behaviour. In modern America, sprawling and suburban as so much of it is, this can provide far more authentic experiences than the car-contained existence many of these children grow up with. And in large, high density cities it can offer a space for reflection that is sorely needed.

Certainly we don’t want children learning about their local flora, fauna, streets and buildings entirely online, or learning all about exotic places without knowing their own. We all should be not just spending time outside, but actively exploring our environs. But then we’ll get home. Hopefully we’ll talk with friends and family, hopefully we’ll read some books, but hopefully we’ll also get online and find out what a broader community has to say about what we’ve just experienced.

(via CINO‘s Daily Asterisk)

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