I finally took the time to watch PBS's Digital Nation this weekend; I chopped vegetables and folded laundry while doing so, in a semi-deliberate attempt to totally miss the point about multi-tasking. It's well worth the 90 minutes--lots of thought-provoking stuff. They offered more questions than answers, which is only appropriate for an area in which we don't have a lot of answers yet.
Near the beginning Sherry Turkle (who was talking about student multi-tasking in class) said, "They need to be stimulated in ways they didn't need to be stimulated before." Which is a line of thinking I've heard before, and one I don't really buy 100%.
We seem to allow ourselves and others get really casual about proving causation when it comes to the use of new technologies, particularly by students. Just because students are adapting (sometimes somewhat obsessively) to new technologies, it doesn't mean that the technology created the need for stimulation; it seems more likely that the technology filled the need for stimulation. If you've been even casually aware of educational trends for any length of time, you'll realize that the need for stimulation is not new. Heck, if you've ever been a student you'll realize this. I remember zoning out in boring classes in high school, spending time doodling in my notebook, or doing work for other classes. I remember one girl who regularly spent class time painting her nails. Sure, these were less obvious distractions than more contemporary technologies, but you can't convince me that students' desire to occupy their brains in some way during classes that don't stimulate them is somehow a new trend.
The other, similar argument I hear regularly is that kids today are "wired differently." Until I'm shown actual brain scans that show that today's students have made sudden, drastic evolutionary leaps, I refuse to believe that students are actually "wired" differently. The way they meet the need for stimulation is different, but the need is the same as it has always been.
One of the things that struck me as I watched Digital Nation is that they were using shots of students fooling around on their computers during class to show how distracted students were during class. Only all of these shots were taken in large lecture halls, where students were expected to be passive. I've sat in those large lecture halls. Some of you have sat in them with me. And I guarantee you that even though I was a good student who was frequently interested in the topic, if I'd had a laptop in class I also would have been distracted by it. Because large lecture halls and classes that don't actively engage students in their own learning are boring.
The need to actively engage students in their own learning has always been there--but the introduction of new technologies into the classroom has made it more urgent. Many teachers seem to be looking for a way to "change" students, to make them put down the electronics and go back to being "good students." But the students haven't changed; they need the same things they always have, that we haven't been giving them for ages. So we, as teachers, have to be the ones who change.
Which is not to say I think we need to be all stimulation all the time. The other part of the series that really resonated for me was from the extended interview with Sherry Turkle, called The Need for Stillness. I believe that as librarians we are in a unique position to help provide the space and structure for quiet reflection--which is vitally important to the process of both consuming and producing knowledge.