Multi-taskers or stimulus-addicts?

When you think back to your grade school education, you probably have memories of large science books or overheads. Well, gone are the days of overhead projectors, now replaced by smartboards. And apparently, those hefty science books may be a thing of the past, too. McGraw-Hill just announced it’s first all-digital textbook for K-12. Sure, they want to turn around the trend of schools spending less on books these days, but it’s a smart move for kids whose lives are increasingly more digital.

If you give a child the option to read a chapter from a big biology textbook or read an ebook with animated video clips, I have the sneaking suspicion that the child would choose the digital option. There’s even the option to have digital conversations right alongside the text, similar to what the kids are accustomed to with Facebook. Polly Stansell, director of product development for McGraw-Hill, says, “We’re trying to meet students and teachers where they’re at digitally.”

A lesson from one of McGraw-Hill's digital textbooks, via Mashable

Now, this sounds really smart. Allowing students the chance to learn digitally since they live their lives digitally seems like a natural progression, right? But is there a negative side effect of being in front of a computer screen all day? Are we creating learners who are better multi-taskers or stimulus-addicts?

According to CNN, our digital lives may be giving us “popcorn brain.” Rather than choosing to spend time outside or enjoying a few moments with their children, people are choosing digital stimulus. Experts are speculating that our brains are now so used to the constant stimulation of digital multitasking that we basically can’t live functional lives offline. Normal life just moves too slowly for our digitally-addicted brains.

Why does this happen? Our brains are wired to like the fast-paced nature of technology. We feed off of the instantaneousness. In fact, being online stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain. So it’s no wonder we’re drawn to this digital lifestyle. However, if this “popcorn brain” goes on long enough, it can cause a physical change in our brains. Those who spend too much time online have less gray matter – the thinking part of the brain. That’s a serious issue. To cope, set time limits for your online life or reserve time in the evening that you’ll stay away from technology.

So what do you think? Is digital learning for students a good progression, or are we setting young people up for “popcorn brain” issues? Share your thoughts in the comments!

June 28, 2011 · Posted by in misc, web  


5 Responses to “Multi-taskers or stimulus-addicts?”

  1. Pete Prodoehl on June 28th, 2011 11:22 am

    I do have concern about a fully digital future, which is part of the reason I tend to do a lot of making, the kind that Make Magazine is all about. It’s great that kids are excited about computers and technology, but I hope that they can also find joy (as well as learn something) by making physical things.

    I know so many people that see things that someone else made, usually on a blog like Boing Boing and think it’s so cool, and worth sharing, but never take the time to see what they can do.

    I know more than a few software developers who have taken up working with tools, and building things, mainly because always working in the digital realm causes this disconnect from the analog world.

    I seem to have strayed a bit, but as far as education goes, I hope it doesn’t become “all digital” and we still maintain that physical, analog, real-world experience that many of us grew up with.

  2. Olivia Johnson on June 28th, 2011 11:28 am

    Oh, agreed. I understand the need to modernize learning, but there needs to be plenty of hands-on learning, too, to balance out the digital aspects.

    My high school, actually, is doing a lot with hands on learning, especially when it comes to making physical things and using technology. In fact, students there kicked some serious butt in a robotics competition, and it would be great to see more schools incorporating these types of learning opportunities.

    Here’s the article about the robotics team:

  3. April on June 28th, 2011 4:55 pm

    What concerns me is that all-digital textbooks can only be used by certain groups of students. Yeah, many kids certainly are embracing the digital revolution, but what about those who don’t have access to computers or readers at home?

  4. Pete Prodoehl on June 28th, 2011 5:02 pm

    The “Digital Divide” is still definitely an issue. I know a family with 7 kids that has just one computer they all share. Textbooks may be expensive, but so are the devices needed to provide information. I know more school are doing programs that provide computers/devices to students, but it’s definitely not all schools.

  5. Olivia on June 28th, 2011 5:04 pm

    That’s a very good question, and that’s the reason that universities have been adopting the technology while grade schools have not – at least not yet. College students typically have their own computers or at least have access to a library most of the day. But you’re absolutely right – a 3rd grader might not have the luxury of a home computer.

    I’ve always been surprised to hear how involved kids are in technology now (not to go too off topic). When I was assisting a third grade class two years ago, they already knew a lot about PowerPoint. I have a friend who works at a school in this area… and the kindergarteners use iPads! So all in all, tech is becoming a big part of today’s education.