Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Is the Internet making us stupid?

In the latest issue of the Atlantic, Nicholas Carr writes a thought-provoking piece about how the Internet may be changing the very way we think.
As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
As a teacher who incorporates a number of Web 2.0 tools, the article gives me pause. Since I also taught a couple of decades without the Internet in my classroom, however, some of what he writes seems a bit too simplistic. My classes start with 10-15 minutes of sustained reading (of books) or writing (in journals); there is a collective calm that ensues as the students and I engage in what one of Carr's sources might call "rich mental connections" with traditional texts and tools. Sometimes that involves writing on paper what we've been learning from online sources.

To use Carr's own metaphor, isn't it possible to be a person who enjoys both jet skiing and scuba diving? Just because I now jet ski, does that mean I can no longer scuba dive? That's silly. What this all means to me as an educator is that I've got to be more explicit in my teaching about the "rules" that govern reading and writing in traditional vs. digital composition. We don't need to unplug (as he seems to imply), rather we need to become fluent in the various media.

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