Saturday, February 27, 2010

PBS's "Frontline: Digital Nation" Documentary

This documentary fascinated me. Early in the program, I was intrigued to learn that college and university professors expect to lecture to a classroom full of students who are on their laptops, wired to the Net while supposedly listening to the professor. Students “multi-tasking” (on their mobile devices, logged on to email and social networking sites) while in class is the “norm” in many higher education classrooms today. It was disconcerting to hear the experts interviewed in this segment of the documentary claim that students are in fact not multi-tasking productively, that students “have done themselves a disservice by…believing a multi-tasking learning environment will serve their best purposes.” Too frequently, I check my email, update my calendar, and review assignments for other classes while sitting in my EDU-533 Monday night lectures. While a part of me feels rude and inattentive doing so, the other part validates such behavior because it’s necessary to maintaining my busy lifestyle. To learn from the Frontline program that my multi-tasking may actually be a detriment to my productivity will give me pause before I logon to AOL and Facebook when in lecture next. However, while I might give pause, I likely won’t stay offline completely. Having fallen victim to the multi-tasking movement as so many of my friends and colleagues have, I do strongly agree with the comment made in the documentary that eliminating distraction or “unwiring” oneself can’t be done in a vacuum. Multi-tasking is a collaborative effort that involves many interdependent parties; if you quit, you let down your teammates and place them at a disadvantage.

Also of interest was the suggested metaphor likening the Internet to smoking; just as it took decades for society to realize and react to the devastating effects of smoking on health, society may only now, decades after its birth, begin to realize the negative psychological effects of the Internet. Nowhere is this parallel more evident than in South Korea. According to the documentary, 90% of South Korean children access the Internet daily. 10-15% of this population is considered “high risk” for addiction to video gaming. To combat this issue, the South Korean government is funding “Internet Rescue Schools” or “Camps” that offer free counseling and rehabilitation services to affected youth. While watching this segment, I noticed that most of the South Korean youth filmed in this segment were boys; I noted only one female in the dozens of children featured. I was both shocked and saddened to learn about the Internet addiction epidemic in South Korea. Furthermore, in the closing portion of the segment, it was unsettling to watch a class of second graders being taught how to navigate the Internet while supposedly learning how to do so responsibly. In a country so riddled with Internet abuse and online gaming addiction amongst its youth, why continue to foster Internet use in South Korean youth? Isn’t that like providing alcohol to the minor children of alcoholics? Or providing teenagers with marijuana, telling them to smoke up but to do so responsibly and stay off the “hard stuff” with full knowledge that marijuana is a gateway drug? It seems a blatant oxymoron: South Korean second graders singing about “Netiquette” when 10-15% of them will end up online gaming addicts within 10 years. Disturbing.

What I appreciate most about the Frontline documentary, however, is the even presentation of both sides of the debate over our Digital Nation. As disturbing as the stories presented in the first half of the video are, the second half presents a far more optimistic view on the present and future state of our digital age. I was inspired by the interviews conducted at the New York school in which, through the full integration of education and technology, attendance and violence issues were drastically reduced while test scores radically improved. According to the technology in education proponents interviewed, the responsibility of teachers of today’s digital natives is to prepare students for an adult world that will require them to be technologically fluent problem solvers, not “stay in their seats and be quiet.” Perhaps the infusion of technology in education is valid simply because, as one expert quoted so simply stated, “the world has sped up in a lot of ways…and education hasn’t.”

"Frontline: Digital Nation" is a fascinating documentary. It provides a very even-handed, unbiased presentation of both sides of the debate surrounding our Digital Nation, portraying arguments from the very right, the very left, and much of the ambiguous reasoning between the two. Ultimately I agree with the final analysis of the hosts offered in closing, that it’s likely “too early to tell” to what end we’re headed as a Digital Nation.

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