Sunday, October 24, 2010

Digital Dilettantism

Will Fitzhugh
The Concord Review

The Kaiser Foundation, in its January 2010 report on the use of electronic entertainment media by U.S. students, aged 8-18, found that, on average, these young people are spending more than seven hours a day (53 hours a week) with such (digital) amusements.

For some, this would call into question whether students have time to read the nonfiction books and to write the research papers they will need to work on to get themselves ready for college and careers, not to mention the homework for their other courses.

For the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, however, the problem appears to be that we are not paying enough attention to the possible present and future connections between digital media and learning, so they have decided to invest $50,000,000 in grants to explore that relationship.

One recent two-year grant, “for $650,000 to study the effect of digital media on young people's ethical development and to develop curricula for parents and teachers,” went to the Harvard Education School, which has distinguished itself for, among other things, seeming to have no one on its faculty with any research or teaching interest in the actual academic work of high school students, for example in chemistry, history, economics, physics, foreign languages, calculus, and the like.

The Harvard Ed School faculty do show real interest in poverty, disability, psychological problems, race, gender, ethnicity, and the development of moral character, so they may take to this idea of studying the relation between electronic media and student ethics. A visit to the Harvard Ed School website, and a review of the research interests of the faculty would prove enlightening to anyone who thought, for some odd reason, that they might be paying attention to the academic work of students in the schools.

Whether Harvard will conclude that seven hours a day doesn’t help much with the ethical development of students or not, one could certainly wish that they would discover that spending a lot of their time on digital media does very little for student preparation for college academic work that is at all demanding, not to mention the actual work of their careers, unless they are in the digital entertainment fields, of course.

The National Writing Project, which regularly has received $26,000,000 each year in federal grants for many years to help thousands of teachers feel more comfortable writing about themselves, has now received $1.1 million in grants from the MacArthur Foundation, presumably so that they may now direct some of their efforts to helping students use digital media to write more about themselves as well.

Perhaps someone should point out, to MacArthur, the National Writing Project, the Harvard Ed School, and anyone else involved in this egregious folly and waste of money, that our students already spend a great deal of their time each and every day writing and talking about themselves with their friends, using a variety of electronic media.

In fact, it is generally the case that the students (without any grants) are already instructing any of their teachers who are interested in the use of a variety of electronic media.

But like folks in any other self-sustaining educational enterprise, those conversing on the uses of digital media in learning about digital media need a chance to talk about what they are doing, whether it is harmful to serious academic progress for our students or not, so MacArthur has also granted to “the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (in Monterey, California) $2,140,000 to build the field of Digital Media and Learning through a new journal, conferences, and convenings (over five years).”

The MacArthur Foundation website has a list of scores more large grants for these projects in digital media studies and digital learning (it is not clear, of course, what “digital learning” actually means, if anything).

This very expensive and time-consuming distraction from any effort to advance respectable common standards for the actual academic work of students in our nation’s schools must be enjoyable, both for those giving out the $50 million, and, I suppose, for those receiving it, but the chances are good that their efforts will only help to make the college and career readiness of our high school students an even more distant goal.

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