Is technology making us stupider and what can we do about it?

I’m lucky I can work from home, very lucky. As I finish the semester, I wonder how student learning changed once courses went on-line.

Grading on-line papers is difficult for me. Reading from a screen is neurologically different than from a page. We read faster and with less depth on a screen. This is fine for an exciting novel, but when grading, I wonder how much I let slide. Add in the extra key-board steps it takes to correct or comment and it makes on-line paper grading slow going.

Some of my students turned in hand written lab reports and exams (via photo), as we did before we were so rudely interrupted. Writing by hand helps people remember and since it is slower than typing, it forces people to condense ideas and helps a learner transcribe knowledge onto their own words. It’s good for our dexterity. The pen helps us to see in a different way. When I found myself struggling to describe a sculpture in my novel in progress, I picked up a pen and sketched what my mind was visualizing. This helped me put my mind’s eye it into words.

Sadly, I will no doubt rely on screen submitted assignments more next semester because of health concerns. During my last week of in-person labs, as covid-19 crept up and all of us were either sick or scared or both, I had each general chemistry student show me their notebook as I graded the hand-written labs on the spot and gave each notebook back to its owner. I didn’t want a stack of them smoldering in my office, even though paper isn’t a huge source of transmission.

As we face an era of typed answers, we need to be aware of what we are giving up. Despite it being easier to type than hand write, answers are becoming shorter and less detailed, as if we are developing a universal impatience that may be here to stay. There is a pushback against learning cursive and many people don’t know it and can’t read it. However, it can’t be beat for efficient note-taking which helps you to remember. I compose on a keyboard and thank goodness for editors who then push me to expand. And as courses and compositions have moved on-line, I find a need to push my students to expand as well.

Teaching is only part of my job. This is the excuse given for paying adjuncts so terribly. However, if I attend one more Zoom meeting, it might toss me over the edge and I’ll run screaming outside without a mask. Yes, Zoom fatigue is the latest digital plague. Zoom brings us together in impossible times. It also makes us sadly realize what we’ve lost and can provide irritating distraction. Watching my hair grow ever longer is one of those distractions. Like most of us, I mute myself and block the screen.

Some educators blame the ubiquitous cell phones for creating a generation which is poor scholastically because they can no longer focus. People who once loved to read can no longer read books. Former voracious reader Josephine Tovey of The Guardian writes of her struggle to read. “Almost every night it was pitched in battle against powerful forces – my phone, my post-work bleariness and my internet-enfeebled attention span – and the book was losing…as I get older and spend more of my life online, reading books has become harder.”

Smart phones could be making us dumber and are also addicting. People check their phones around once every twelve minutes, and first thing in the morning. This cuts down on the ability to begin the day focused since checking a phone in the morning is distracting. Abundant smart phone and television use has been linked to depression, especially in teens.

Computer addiction has been defined as “A disorder in which the individual turns to the Internet or plays computer games in an attempt to change moods, overcome anxiety, deal with depression, reduce isolation or loneliness, or distract themselves from overwhelming problems. The elderly, as well as children and adolescents, are particularly vulnerable.” As we turn to on-line schooling, will we increase this, or will computers be used less during out of class hours because they are associated with work?

Signs of this addiction can be found on the link.

After the invention of the printing press, unscrupulous folks churned out books filled with misinformation. The populace, who had mostly associated a book with the Bible, fell prey. No doubt, in the 1450s, people probably wondered if books were making us stupider. Now days, memes are the spreader of bad info and have created a “new world disorder.” The saying with a picture has been called a form of psychological infection and a source of prejudice. Older people are particularly vulnerable.

However, at least we have a way to connect in times like this. How can we do it better?

A few tips are:

  1. Use your computer only in specific areas and turn it off when not in use.

2. Store your smart phone in your purse or pocket.

3. Limit time on social media. Restrict yourself to x number of comments per day.

4. Find something new to occupy your time. Many people have learned fresh skills from on-line courses. Common hobbies during these times are tv watching (be careful not to binge as binging causes depression), reading, working out, and arts and crafts. So many people are baking these days that stores have run out of many ingredients. (Here’s what to substitute.)

5. Give yourself a time limit. Use a Nanny App or set browsing free days or hours.

6. Don’t believe those memes.

7. To improve focus and help organize and slow down your distracted mind, take a break and write by hand.

𝓣𝓱𝓪𝓷𝓴𝓼 𝓯𝓸𝓻 𝓻𝓮𝓪𝓭𝓲𝓷𝓰!

6 thoughts on “Is technology making us stupider and what can we do about it?

  1. How to keep from getting addicted? I don’t own a smart phone. I’ve never smoked a cigarette. You can’t miss what you never had. (Easy for me to say, coming from a generation where the first didn’t exist and the second seemed to me literally a no-brainer.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Walter Cannon

    Interesting observations about hand-written material and things that are typed or key-boarded (hmm, makes me think of water-boarded) with regard to memorability and length. I certainly agree that hand-writing things works to impress the material in the mind more than key-boarding. I’m not so sure about typing, but it’s probably about the same. I used to either re-write or type up all the notes I took from lectures, so that they would be more readable and organized, and if I did it the same day as I took the notes, I could add things I remembered that I hadn’t had time to write down.

    But the puzzling part of your observations is that the key-boarded material is shorter even though it’s easier to “type” than write out (either in cursive or somehow printed). One would think that the easier way to write would also produce “more” writing. In my writing pedagogy class, for example, I often had students write with their “non-dominant” hand to illustrate how difficult it is for beginning writers to write and what they were forced to “give up” in their composition–mostly length and “fluency” since they just wanted to be finished with it.

    I think it’s mostly true in my own case as I compose mostly at the keyboard (though not so much for poetry) that I write more than if I were to write things out by hand. There is a caveat though: since the key-boarded material looks more polished on a screen, I’m always doing much more internal editing as I go along which tends to reduce the flow or the output. And this lack of production is not always a good thing.

    So I’m wondering if the shortness of the comments or whatever is the result of some kind of premature editing.

    And you’re right about your speculation regarding people in the 15th C thinking that the invention of the book was making us stupider, or at least making us think differently. (My dissertation–if I can remember that far back–touched on some of this). Before the printing press made books more readily accessible, knowledge was thought to be housed in our heads (our brains), but after books became more widely available knowledge was something that existed “out there” and not so much something that we had inside.

    I like your seven tips!

    Liked by 1 person

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