Thursday, July 31, 2014

Screen vs. Print, a collision of worlds, not words (Part II)

Visualization of routes through the Internet, from Wikipedia

Printer in 1568-ce, from Wikipedia

In the intro post to this blog, I used Marshall McLuhan’s term, ‘the Gutenberg Galaxy,’ (also the name of, in my opinion, his best book) as a metaphor for the world of print media, such as newspapers, magazines, and books.  We can contrast this world with ‘the Digital Universe,’ or the world of screen media, such as the laptops and iPads we’ve been discussing here.

In education, as we've seen in the previous post, there are arguably good reasons not to totally replace the print technology of the Gutenberg Galaxy with the screen technology of the Digital Universe—analogous arguments could be made for workplace training or similar learning environments.  

Print media (or ‘light-on’ media, as McLuhan called it) are good for helping students slowly focus and reflect on words that are contained and fixed on a page.  

Screen media (or ‘light-through’ media, to evoke one more McLuhanism) are more like windows, better for opening up a wideralbeit less focusedview and allowing students to scan and multitask without taxing too much reflective thought.

As a general rule (although we'll go over some interesting exceptions in later posts), books are often better for teaching reading and most literacy skillsif we go with the National Center for Education Statistics’ definition of literacy (not including digital literacy, which is another topic for later).  Laptops and iPads are better for teaching game-like simulations that exercise spatial and visual skills.  For example, if you want to learn about the US Federalist Papers or the Constitution, you’re probably better off reading books or print documents.  But if you need to learn how to fly a plane, drive a car, or play the rules of a sport, a simulation video game will work way better than any manual.

And here lies the moral of the story, which we can put in a quasi-syllogistic form:

  • Different media (or information-processing technologies) help us with different kinds of mental activities (or information-processing tasks).
  • There are many different kinds of information-processing tasks that our minds do every day (e.g., reading comprehension skills that require long-term memory and focus differ from navigational skills that require short-term memory and multitasking).
  • Ergo, what kind of information-processing task I wish to accomplish may be made easier or harder by the kind of information-processing technology I chose to assist me.

So how does this logic apply to print vs. screen media?

Again, Print media seems to be more conducive to relatively gradual, linear, reflective thought that requires long-term memory and focus.  (I recommend Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows for anyone interested in the scientific details; Proust and the Squid by Maryanne Wolf is an excellent read too.)

Screen media seems to help us more by rapidly processing tidbits of information in nonlinear fashions that facilitate short-term memory and multitasking (which is why laptops have not had their intended effects in education, particularly in literacy, although they should be useful for many other tasks, such as spatial orientation, navigation, or visualization).

So do the worlds of the Gutenberg Galaxy and the Digital Universe collide?  Well, of course!  But (as I hope I’ve made clear by now) we would do better to reframe the whole topic with a sharper question so as not to be recalcitrant.  Here’s a better question:

What information processing task (i.e., mental activity) are you trying to accomplish, and what information-processing technology (i.e., medium) is best for doing so?  In other words, what activity is my mind doing, and what choice of media would help it better?

With that much improved question in mind, let us revisit the news that St. Paul Public Schools plan to spend a few million of tax-payer money to equip every student with an iPad.  Is this a prudent or perilous plan?  Well, since the school board hasn't given us any specifics yet on how it intends to use the iPads for education, we can't be sure yet.  But we can make some recommendations . . .

It is very unlikely that iPads will help educational skills that require focus, attention, and long-term memory.  The iPad probably won’t help reading comprehension or most literacy skills.  Nevertheless, iPads, like laptops and computer apps, certainly can enhance learning when it comes to spatial and visual tasks, such as understanding maps, learning how to drive, or exercising visual acuity.

So in the next post, we'll make more explicit what each media (print vs. screen) are best suited for (and we'll hope that the school boards are listening).  Join us one more time for the conclusion of Screen vs. Print (Part III).

Screen vs. Print, a collision of worlds, not words (Part I)

As I hinted at in the previous post, a recent trend in education is bringing digital technology into the classroom, whether elementary school, high school, or college.  Laptops, computer apps, and now iPads are finding places in contemporary education.  But school time, like all our time on earth, is finite, so something must give.  And what gives is the book.  Yes, laptops and computer apps are replacing books in both education and home life.  But as screens replace print in the classroom, has student learning improved at all?  The answer may surprise you.

In fact, the science is in on this issue.  Empirical studies on laptops and computer apps in the classroom show that student learning has surprisingly (or maybe not surprisingly for many teachers) worsened for the most part.  One major peer reviewed study reports:

Students admit to spending considerable time during lectures using their laptops for things other than taking notes. More importantly, the use of laptops was negatively related to several measures of learning. The pattern of the correlations suggests that laptop use interfered with students’ abilities to pay attention to and understand the lecture material, which in turn resulted in lower test scores  (Fried, 2006).  

In other words, laptop use in the classroom consistently correlates with student distraction and falling grades.

But wait a second!  Correlation does not necessarily mean causation, something we all learn in basic science.  However, related studies suggest that there is a causal path from laptop use to deteriorating academic skills, especially in literacy.  To understand this causation, consider a larger topic: the experience of using screens vs. the experience of using print.

When it comes to screen vs. print media, we can name at least three major differences that affect learning (and human cognition in general).

Light:  When students read screens, the light comes through the screen, directly at the retina, which will eventually tire the eyes, an effect known as digital eye strain.  Contrast that visual experience to looking at a book.  When students read a book, the light is reflected off the page, which does not shine direct light into the eyes.  This is why books better facilitate visual attention and focus, essential ingredients for working memory and learning.

Haptics:  Think about the haptic experience of using a book.  Reading a book is a sensorimotor experience, involving touching and flipping pages, using hand-eye coordination, feeling the weight of the codex, and sensing whether it is big or small, thick or thin, etc.  Screens imperfectly replicate, or sometimes fail to replicate, these haptic experiences.  Moreover, a lot of people are unaware that these haptic experiences give our brains sensory feedback, which affects learning and cognition.  (This is why cognition is sometimes understood as embodied cognition, meaning that mental life is strongly shaped by bodily experience.)

Distractions:  Finally (and this point should be obvious to parents and teachers), consider the fact that books don’t have the same kind of built-in distractions that screen media like laptops and iPads have (e.g., games, email, etc.).

Scientific American ran at a terrific article on this research not too long ago (November 2013), which they summarized with the following graphic.

"Why the Brain Prefers Paper" from Scientific American 

So what can we conclude from all this data, especially when it comes to digitizing the classroom with laptops and iPads in the classroom?  Find out in the next post on Screen vs. Print (Part II) . . .

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Digitizing the classroom with iPads: prudent or perilous?

Little House On The Prairie on

Babbitt on

Plenty of inane stereotypes have proliferated about the state of Minnesota (thanks to classic movies like Fargo), but without a doubt, Minnesota is a fulfilling place to live if you’re into books and literature.  My wife loved reading Laura Ingalls Wilder growing upone time we even visited a couple of Wilder’s old residencies in rural MNand my favorite Minnesotan writer is Sinclair Lewis, who was the first American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.  I write from the capital city, St. Paul, home to literary celebrities from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Garrison Keillor, and its neighboring 'twin' city, Minneapolis, ranks as one of the most literate cities in the USA.

I mention the bookish background of my state because it may shed light on why a recent decision by St. Paul Schools has sparked questions, even skepticism, among parents and teachers.  In short, St. Paul Schools approved a plan to equip every student (including pre-K kids) with an iPad.  Since the details are yet to come on exactly how these devices are supposed to help teach students and close achievement gaps, it’s difficult to evaluate the board’s decision in any methodical way.  

So should parents and teachers be concerned about digitizing the classroom with iPads?

Well, to try to answer that question, the first thing we can do is look at similar attempts by other major cities.  The Los Angeles schools, for example, experimented by giving iPads to students in hopes to aid learning and raise grades.  When asked for feedback in surveys, however, most teachers reported little enthusiasm about using iPads.  Then again, this survey feedback is pretty ambiguous and not necessarily scientific, which makes it difficult to generalize.  Unfortunately, scientific data on iPads in education is pretty scarce.

However, we can look at how other attempts to digitize the classroom went over prior decades.  For example, we now have plenty of scientific data about laptops and how they affect student learning.

Laptops, like iPads, are a kind of screen technology—in contrast to the print technology of books.  In the next two posts to come, we will look at how laptops and books—screen and print—differ.  Then we will see how those differences make a difference in education, for better or for worse.

But before going further, we should be careful to frame the question correctly; otherwise, we won’t be able to answer it correctly.  Arguing for laptops and iPads over books, or arguing for books over laptops and iPads, should never be understood as ‘pro-technology’ or ‘anti-technology’ arguments.  Laptops, iPads, and books are all technologies—the first two being screen technology, the second being print technology.

The real question should be this: what technology is best for learning what educational skill?  Or the way I’ve put it previously: which information-processing technology is best for which information-processing task?  Let’s not radicalize ourselves with labels like technophile on one hand and technophobe on the other.   There are enough culture wars in our society already.

So stay tuned, and join me in the next couple posts for Screen vs. Print, where we will return to the question concerning iPads, laptops, and other digital devices in education!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Media meets Mind: Do information-processing technologies help us process information?

Let’s launch our expedition by clarifying a central question about media, which was raised in the introductory post:

When it comes to using media, do information-processing technologies help our minds process information? 

At first, it seems like a simple question.  However, keep in mind that there are many different kinds of information-processing technologies in the world of media, such as. . . 

  • Print media like books and magazines

  • Digital media like personal computers and laptops

  • Social media like Facebook, Twitter, and blogs like this one 

  • Mobile media like iPhones and e-readers

Notice I’m using the word technology in a pretty broad sense.  Books, like computers, are information-processing technologies. 

There are also many different kinds of information-processing tasks that our minds execute to varying degrees.  To name just a few distinctions . . .

  • Concrete vs. Abstract: is the info specific (e.g., my dog Bert) or more generic (e.g., the canine family)? 

  • Conscious vs. Unconscious: is the info deliberately controlled (e.g., doing a calculus problem, composing an argument) or just automatic (reciting times tables, writing words)? 

  • Analytical vs. Artistic: is the info more logical/empirical (e.g., scientific data) or analogical/allegorical (e.g., poetry)? 

OK, before we continue, just two quick side notes:

Primo, these distinctions are just ones of degree, not dichotomies.  For example, we often alternate between concrete and abstract thought.  (Think of something like the national flag, one moment thinking about the concrete details of stripes, shapes, and colors, the next moment thinking more abstractly about the wider meaning of its symbols.)  For the very ambitious readers out there interested in how we think, I recommend the work of George Lakoff (especially his book Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things) and Wilma Koutstaal (see her book The Agile Mind). 

Secondo, notice that there are some distinctions I don’t accept, such as conceptual vs. emotional.  Neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio (see pretty much any of his books, my favorite being Looking For Spinoza) have demonstrated with overwhelming evidence that all conceptual processing done by our brains requires emotion and feeling.  For instance, individuals with damage to areas of the brain that process emotion often cannot make the most basic, rational decisions, such as financial decisions.  

So, to return to our original question: when we use information-processing technologies, do they help our minds process information? 

Well, the world of media includes many kinds of information-processing technologies, and our minds also do many sorts of information-processing tasks.  So the only way to answer the question is to look at different information-processing technologies and see how they help us (or not) with different information-processing tasks.   

On this note, we officially launch our expedition.  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Explorers of the Digital Universe, Guardians of the Gutenberg Galaxy

As if launching a satellite into the infinitely expanding universe, I enter a new blog into the ever expanding blogosphere.  Like a satellite exploring infinitely expanding space, this blog will explore our infinitely expanding digital universe.

The digital universe?

I mean cyberspace, the computer-mediated world of Internet that has given us everything from digital technologies like smartphones to online technologies like social media.  This world includes, of course, the blogosphere in which you now temporarily reside.

However, my plea is that, in exploring this universe, let us not forget about the old world, the world of print media, especially newspapers and books.  Media scholar Marshall McLuhan called this old world the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ (after Johannes Gutenberg, the German inventor of the printing press with movable type).

There is no doubt that the Gutenberg Galaxy has been usurped by the Digital Universe.  In blog posts to come, we will look at data that reveal why both kids and adults are reading books less and less while surfing online more and more.  Students around the country often bring iphones and labtops into the classroom more than they bring notepaper or books.  So what is the fate of the Gutenberg Galaxy in this Digital Universe?  Can we guard the old world while still exploring the new?  Those will be some questions this blog will tackle.

As the title “Mindful Media” indicates, this blog will provide (what I hope will be) thoughtful and reflective musings on our technologies—how we use them, what they do to our minds (and sometimes bodies), and whether or not we are using them wisely.

Let me put it this way: Are we using these information-processing technologies in ways that actually help us process information?  Or are we just getting lost in information overload, drowning our deeper thoughts in shallow tweets and posts, amusing ourselves to death?

To understand how our technologies make us who we are, we must look at a wide field of human experience: classical myths and sci fi, business communication and educational practices, cognitive science and media ecology, philosophy of mind and philosophy of technology.  (And if you aren’t sure what some of these things are, then stay tuned!)

In this blog, you will find commentary on Information & Communication Technologies (ICTs) in business and education, research on media and human cognition, and sometimes just fun reviews of books or movies related to these topics.  Whether you are an English major or an IT student, an educator or a professional, I hope to make this blog relevant.

But who am I to do so, you ask?

Basically, I’m a professional who has been making my niche in technical writing/communication, particularly in the banking and finance industry, where I put together analytical reports and write procedures to train workers how to process financial data.  While much of my professional background is in finance, my undergraduate background was in language arts and humanities, and my graduate background focused in ergonomics and cognitive science.

Perhaps this blog is just a crazy attempt to make sense of all the chaos from my interdisciplinary work.  However, in this blog I do intend to provide thoughtful, empirically informed posts on a common theme: how different media and technologies affect our minds and lives.  I hope you enjoy the expedition with me.