Yesterday, I had a student drop by office hours to get some help on his midterm study guide. “I looked the terms you gave us up on the internet,” he explained, “but I was confused on a couple.”
“You looked them up on the internet?” I asked incredulously. “Why didn’t you use your textbook? All the terms on the study guide come directly from your textbook.”
“Textbook?” My student stared, perplexed. “I just always use the internet to look things up.”
This student is not alone. I am constantly grading papers where students will define terms, even very technical terms particular to a field of study like moral theology, using dictionary.com or some other online dictionary, rather than their textbook, or any book for that matter. Works cited pages disproportionately reference websites over books. And students today are woefully unfamiliar with the inner-workings of their friendly school or public library.
So after a solid week of such experiences, I was completely disheartened to read in the local newspaper that a kind-hearted local philanthropist just donated 30 new netbooks to one of our town’s middle schools, an act of charity that is becoming increasingly more common (I read last month about a school in Texas which was the happy beneficiary of iPod Touches for all of its elementary students). The donor said that “the classroom laptops help students learn in a way they’re familiar with, and they focus more than when they’re working from books.” One 12-year-old beneficiary said she liked the computer much more than traditional books: “They’re easier to use and more convenient.”
This is undoubtedly true, but the overuse of technology in the classroom is actually doing a great disservice to students at the college level. Sure they focus better when they are using a computer, but in college, they have to focus when they read books, and read those books carefully. Students are entering college without the basic reading and comprehension skills they need to succeed. But more than that, they are entering college without any interests in books or texts which they view as “old-fashioned” and “boring” and “not nearly as useful as the internet.”
We know that we form our character through how we act consistently over time. If students are consistently directed to computers and to the internet as the sources of true learning, they will never develop the habits of critical reading, or of patience as they plod through a text, or of imagination. I have no doubt that our local philanthropist’s heart is in the right place, but I wonder if we are doing the greatest service to our students by gifting them with more and more technology. Sure students find it easier and more stimulating to use a computer, but isn’t the goal of education to challenge students, to teach them skills they can’t learn on their owns, and to open new horizons and areas of interest for them that they might not be exposed to otherwise?