Two recent columns in the NYT discuss the dumbing down effect of the internet. One was David Brooks’ recent column. He wrote about a 3-year study done by researchers from the University of Tennessee. They allowed 852 disadvantaged students to take 12 books of their own choosing home for the summer to read. And they read them! The students’ test scores in reading were not only significantly higher than comparable students who hadn’t participated. They learned as much as they would have in summer school.
But the students given a computer and access to the Internet did not fare so well:
Recently, Internet mavens got some bad news. Jacob Vigdor and Helen Ladd of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy examined computer use among a half-million 5th through 8th graders in North Carolina. They found that the spread of home computers and high-speed Internet access was associated with significant declines in math and reading scores.
In Brent Staples’ article about students’ cut-and-paste culture, teachers not only have become plagiarism cops, they also fret about the kids losing the ability to think in any but the most superficial way:
[A]s David Pritchard, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told [Staples] recently: “The big sleeping dog here is not the moral issue. The problem is that kids don’t learn if they don’t do the work.”
Prof. Pritchard and his colleagues illustrated the point in a study of cheating behavior by M.I.T. students who used an online system to complete homework. The students who were found to have copied the most answers from others started out with the same math and physics skills as their harder-working classmates. But by skipping the actual work in homework, they fell behind in understanding and became significantly more likely to fail.
This is M.I.T.! And the students aren’t remorseful. They grew up in a cut-and-paste culture, where putting together the bits you find on the net is the same as staking a position and writing a sustained, thoughtful argument. Believe me when I say I don’t understand half of the comments on many blogs. Not because there’s a generation gap. There’s a semantic, linguistic and contextual gap. Oftentimes I wonder, “What the f#@k do they mean?”
Hey, I like cutting and pasting, too. Finding primary sources and quotes on the net (as I did for this article) is a lot easier than combing through yellowed newspapers and randomly organized books and manila folders. (I’m describing my workspace.) But I don’t like my attenuated attention span, dumbed down to fit the frenzied, pop culture nature of the Internet. I have to write for the page view eyeballs. No Proust allowed.
As a sometime SAT/GRE/GMAT/LSAT tutor, it's amazing how many people can't pay attention for the length of time it takes to read a 1500 word essay, let alone write one. That's good for my side business, but bad for the world. Ain't gonna change, anyhow. Now we're biologically wired to get that dopamine rush in 15-second, 140 character spurts. Don't bode well 'tall.