I remember when Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows came out in June. My blogroll teemed with posts from those in higher ed debating the book’s premise that the internet is changing the way we think. More specifically, Carr suggests that the internet is compromising our ability to think deeply and focus extensively.
I’ve heard versions of this argument (or warning, as some may interpret it) since grad school, and have experienced first-hand the compulsive Facebooking, headline-skimming, and multi-tasking it portends. Sometimes reading an article leads down a rabbit hole of endless links; other times it takes as long as hitting “Ctrl + T” to forget what to do next.
But I have not lost all hope. There are plenty of activities that I engage in that I can’t be distracted from. I don’t tweet while running; I don’t email while cooking; I don’t text while sharing a meal with friends; I don’t skip around chapters while reading a good book. These activities, meaningful and engaging to me, still encourage presence, focus, and creativity, and I gladly put down my smart phone long enough to participate.
My anec-data (sample size: me) suggests the internet hasn’t changed how we think, but how we think while we do certain tasks. My level of engagement with an activity determines how distractable I am, not my internet-addled brain. If a task is appropriately interesting and challenging, I tend to not check my phone or email or Facebook. But if a task isn’t the right mix of that cocktail, then my mind does indeed wander. Further, I would bet that my mind wanders no more than it did before the prevalence of the internet (otherwise known as my college internship years); my wanderlust simply has an easy outlet now.
I propose that most activities can be mapped on axes of easy to challenging and boring to interesting, and that those in the sweet spot of challenging and interesting are immune to “the shallows.” Here’s how I’d map a few personal tasks on a graph:
- Easy & Interesting: This quadrant is truly “the shallows” for me. It doesn’t require a lot of effort, but has my attention. In this space, I watch TV while Facebooking while following links until I OD on multitasking.
- Easy & Boring: The easy and boring quadrant holds many of those tasks that should be easy to complete, but lack of focus makes them time- and energy-consuming. I’m always trying to figure out how to talk on the phone or listen to music while cleaning, so it takes extra long to get it done, but requires minimal thought.
- Challenging & Boring: The boring but challenging quadrant is where I do a LOT of procrastinating. I will do anything before tackling the tasks in this space. The easy and boring tasks are downright sexy compared to these (yes, cleaning is my favorite procrastinating activity).
- Challenging & Interesting: The interesting and challenging space is comprised of tasks that require thought, creativity, and offer enough challenge so I don’t look for input elsewhere. I bet Vygotsky would love this zone.
Students in the Shallows?
For those in higher ed who are frustrated with students “in the shallows”, perhaps it’s worth evaluating what you are asking students to do, and if it really is worth their attention away from Facebook. If I were a student today, these common instructional activities would map out like this for me:
- Discussion forums: Online discussions can be fruitful, but they can also very quickly be reduced to “how many times do I have to post to get credit?” Thought-provoking questions and good facilitation can help, but expect that the forum thread isn’t the only discussion the student will be participating in at one time.
- Multiple-choice quizzes: Multiple-choice quizzes rarely do more than serve as a reading check for the instructor, which may have a role in the course. But when you consider how challenging it is to write good, fair quiz questions, and how easy it is for students to hit a radial button, no matter their mastery of the content, you have to consider how much weight quizzes should have in assessing learning.
- Writing essays. I say this with regret, as a former English teacher – students don’t like writing essays. And many are not good at it, despite years of “practice” with the five-paragraph essay. There’s unquestionably a need to teach and assess student communication skills, but the formal academic essay is only one tool to achieve that end, arguably one that lacks relevance in the real world.
- Making videos. Video, like the essay, is simply another communication tool, but one that encourages students to communicate more naturally (speaking) and to think creatively. To make a good video, one has to make use of a range of skills (technical, communication, organizational and design skills, to name a few), which creates more opportunity for diverse students to excel.
If we are indeed living in the shallows of information more and more, there are still ways to get to the deep end through meaningful engagement. Educators have the chance (and the responsibility) to be the safe vessels that carry students into deeper waters, but the old way of doing things is not going to get them there. Perhaps educators, too, need a life vest before jumping off the safe ledge of lectures and exams into the murkier depths of collaborative and project-based learning, but dive we must. Otherwise, this kiddie pool will get overcrowded, and we won’t remember how to swim.