Essay on education, technology & how we use our time

I believe that reading and writing are the most nourishing forms of meditation anyone has so far found. By reading the writings of the most interesting minds in history, we meditate with our own minds and theirs as well. This to me is a miracle.” ― Kurt Vonnegut

……….Recently a handful of things got me thinking and they seemed connected, although I wasn’t exactly sure how. So I did what I usually do, which is put my thoughts on paper, to see if I could make any sense from the different sources of information I have. Bear with me; I am not sure that it all fits together neatly, and maybe it’s not meant to be neat anyway.

……….As a starting point, what got me thinking were the following things:

I.     An article in The American Scholar by Magdalena Kay, titled,  “A New Course”

II.    Reading a 1966 report called, “Learning by Television”

III.   Cell phones and ipods, Facebook and Twitter, et al. in school



……….In the Spring 2013 issue of The American Scholar, Magdalena Kay revisits Christopher Lasch’s 1979 bestseller, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, to find that many of the warnings about turning education into simply another consumer product still ring true today.

……….Throughout the essay, Kay outlines how Lasch recognized (before many others) how higher education would be made more palatable for the masses by using the same sort of marketing and polling data that are used to make better peanut butter or diet cola. While college and university enrollment have increased, however, Kay warns that the courses have been watered down academically, and worse, have been tailored to address the students’ likes and dislikes, trading academic quality to ensure higher enrollment and profit.

……….What’s come of this practice is the commodification and branding not just of traditional brick and mortar colleges, but also of the “schools” born from the digital boom, like Capella and Strayer Universities. Many other articles have pointed out how this rise in “demand” for college education, has allowed colleges to raise their prices. The fact is that for at least the last twenty-five years, colleges have been upgrading their “curb appeal” to attract all kinds of people to their campuses and courses, not just students. Anyone who has recently visited their college alma mater, will recognize how much more comfortable and inviting the campuses are. Upgrades to all the facilities have left some campuses looking more like business parks with resort amenities.

……….None of this would be seen as a negative, if our schools were graduating better students, but they aren’t. For example, despite the push to increase enrollment in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs, a 2011 NY Times article by Christopher Drew found, “that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree.” At the other end of the academic spectrum, a 2006 brief from the Alliance for Excellent Education found that community colleges have also seen their enrollment numbers increase, but had to expand their remedial education services and invested $1.4 billion to provide basic reading, writing and math for recent high school graduates. Worse of all, were findings from the National Center for Education Statistics (2009) that students who enrolled in a remedial reading class only had a 17% chance of having of having obtained a bachelor’s degree 8 years later.

……….What I find interesting regarding this complaint about American students’ intellectual laziness, is that it is made at almost every developmental stage. Since the landmark 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, highlighted the poor literacy and mathematical skills of the country’s seventeen year-olds, various reform and improvement efforts have swept through the nation’s schools.

……….Thus far, except for a few gains our fourth graders have made in international scores, Americans do not compare favorably at almost any age. When it comes to measuring our academic discipline, it seems that the news in not good after we turn ten. A sample of recent articles that highlight this trend should be enough to convince anyone that as a nation, we are lacking in basic skills:

……….The findings of the above articles and reports, could be summed up by a paragraph from the 2006 issue brief by The Alliance for Excellent Education which says in part, “America’s high schools are not preparing many of their students for the demands of both college and the modern workforce. Weak curricula, vague standards, and lack of alignment between high school content and the expectations of colleges and employers result in the need for remediation.”

……….And this lack of interest in literacy and learning extends into adulthood, as a 2009 report found that, “an estimated 32 million adults in the USA — about one in seven — are saddled with such low literacy skills that it would be tough for them to read anything more challenging than a children’s picture book or to understand a medication’s side effects listed on a pill bottle.”

……….Just when this problem seemed intractable, when 30 years of bad test results and unfavorable head to head comparisons against our international peers seemed to get the best of us, in rushes technology to rescue education. K-12 schools are preparing themselves by upgrading their equipment, much like college campuses raised their “curb appeal” a generation ago.

……….Armed with smart boards, document cameras, rolling ipad labs, mac books and other gadgets that connect wirelessly to the web, where there are documentaries, 3D virtual tours, subscription databases and a host of other educational resources, certainly we must be close to solving the great problems that have haunted American education. Not according to Magdalena Kay, who says, “The real problem is that students can find entertainment so easily elsewhere, on the laptops, smartphones, and tablets that are ubiquitous in classrooms today.”

……….To quote Homer, “D’oh!”


After more than a decade of intensive effort and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars, has television made a real impact on America’s schools and colleges? Has it made a worthwhile contribution to education?

……….The short answer to such a sweeping question would probably have to be “No.” Whether measured by the numbers of students affected, or by the quality of the product, or by the advancement of learning, televised teaching is still in a rudimentary stage of development” (9) – Judith Murphy and Ronald Gross, (1966) Learning by Television

……….Before computers revolutionized the world, there was television. Even before television acquired its fancy peripherals (cable connection, video disc player, VCR, DVD player) it was a superstar of electronic devices. Naturally, people imagined that television could be used to transform education, and thus throughout the 1950’s and 60’s a number of projects were run across the country using television in a variety of ways. One such project was the National Program in the Use of Television in the Public Schools, which according to an ERIC abstract was, “an effort to determine the feasibility of using televised instruction as a major resource in the teaching of large classes.”

……….Looking through a box of donations a few weeks ago, I found the 1966 book quoted above and naturally I had to read it. Like I said before, in 1966 television didn’t have all its sidekicks, and the amount of programming available would seem like virtually nothing to today’s digital generation. Still, the technology seemed very promising and as the quote mentions, tons of money was invested getting television into all sorts of classrooms.

……….Many good things came from these ventures, including the Children’s Television Workshop, which spawned Sesame Street, but the 1966’s report has an overall cautionary tone that warns against being too optimistic about what television could do for education. “Television is in education,” say the authors, “but it is still not of education” (9).

……….Throughout, the report sounds exactly as you would expect a report to sound with lines like, “On balance, ITV is still deficient in quality”(47) and, “The immeasurable possibilities of communication satellites and other major technological breakthroughs have profound implications for education” (78). As I read, I couldn’t help replace the words “ITV” or “educational television” with “computers” or “smart boards” or “laptops”, trying to see if the statements and conclusions held true. Many times yes, sometimes no.

……….When I finished reading, I thought about how different 1966 America was. The Civil Rights Act was just two years old, but everywhere there was unrest in the United States. The Watts riots in California were coupled with anti-war protests on college campuses. 1966 saw the birth of both the National Organization of Women (N.O.W) and the original Black Panthers. A year earlier, Malcolm X had been assassinated in New York. Three years earlier Medgar Evers and John F Kennedy had been assassinated. The first ever Super Bowl was still a year away and ARPANET, the precursor to the Internet, was still three years from being launched.

……….The United States was so different. The world was so different. Technology was so different. And yet there was one line in that report I thought really mattered.

……….“ITV is only as good as the use to which it is put by the classroom teacher”(64).


For a culture obsessed with immediate gratification, the rewards of studying anything may seem intolerably slow in coming. The question is not just whether we can twist our favorite subject so that its relevance becomes visible, but whether we can persuade people to study at all when so many easier pleasures beckon” (38)

– Magdalena Kay, “A New Course”, The American Scholar

……….Today’s library is a media center, and I’ve written in past posts about how technology in general and computers specifically, have transformed what I do for a living. Thrown into this mix, are the ever-evolving smart phones and tablets that more and more students seem to be bringing to school. Even though the student handbook still officially prohibits the use of these personal devices, the unofficial position seems to be that students can use them during lunch and in the halls while passing between classes.

……….In the library, we still nag the students to put these devices away, even during lunchtime, and there are at least three good reasons for my persistence with this position. First of all, it is still the official rule in the handbook, and just like the rule against hats, hoods and bandanas, we try to be consistent with how we approach the rules.

……….Second of all, students who claim that they work better when they are listening to music are kidding themselves according to the science available on multitasking. In a 2008 article, “The Myth of Multitasking”, the author, Christine Rosen goes as far as saying that because focus and concentration are interrupted, “multitasking [is] a poor long-term strategy for learning.” More recently, a 2013 University of Utah study found that, “the frequency with which participants talked on cell phones while driving or using multiple media at once correlated inversely with the subject’s actual ability to multitask, and their perceived multitasking ability “was found to be significantly inflated”.  In other words, the more that people multitask, the worse at it they become.

……….The good sensations that our chronic bud wearers feel are what we all experience when we listen to music we enjoy. The therapeutic benefits of music are well documented, and in May 2006 the Journal of Advanced Nursing even had a press release claiming that, “Listening to music can reduce chronic pain by up to 21 percent and depression by up to 25 percent while increasing feelings of power”.

……….But even this positive effect may be limited when dealing with the developing minds of adolescents, according to a study published by JAMA Pediatrics in 2011. Among its findings, researchers reported that, “Major depressive disorder is positively associated with popular music exposure and negatively associated with reading print media such as books. Further research elucidating the directionality and strength of these relationships may help advance understanding of the relationships between media use and MDD.”

……….Thus, the research so far, seems to indicate that while listening to music may make you feel better while you are working, it does not necessarily help you while studying difficult material, especially if it is new.

……….Coupled with this are statistics that show real changes in our behavior patterns over the last decade. Since 2002, for example, one researcher found that the number of hours Americans spend playing video games doubled from 71 to 142, or nearly 18 complete eight-hour work days.  In December 2012, a San Fransisco based company reported that time spent daily on mobile apps had risen to 127 minutes per day, surpassing the 70 minutes a day people spent surfing online via traditional computers, and even challenging the nearly 3hours a day people spend watching television.

……….In a preliminary draft of a 2012 study done at the University of Texas at Arlington titled, Does time spent playing video games crowd out time spent studying?, the author Michael Ward concludes:

……….“The continuous advent of new technologies will tend to lead to the declining use of older technologies. Likewise, to the extent that these technologies engender engaging and entertaining activities, they will likely displace time spent in alternative activities. Some of these displaced activities will be other entertainment activities such as television viewing or computer use. However, some of these activities could be related to the development of human capital such as class attendance and doing homework. This paper finds evidence that both educational and non-educational activities are displaced by one such entertainment technology. Video games are likely to lead to somewhat lower levels of human capital accumulation.”

……….Which leads me to the third reason I ask my students to put away their phones, turn off their ipods and turn their attention to some academic pursuit. I know that they are not doing it at home. Worse than that, however, is that every time I use LAN software to sneak a peak at what is happening in our computer labs, I see that we are not doing in school either.

(Screen shot of multiple labs at “work” at 9 a.m., 03/11/13. Of the 82 screens I could see,  38 were being used. About half of these showed kids playing games or engaged in some other non-school related activity).


Thank you for your patience and for reading. I hope you have a great and productive day.

Copyright © henry toromoreno, 2013. All rights reserved