On Fertile Minds

I’m constantly amazed when I visit with students.  Amazed, often because they don’t know who Michael Knight is or why Jar Jar Binks is an affront to Jabba, but more often than not because of the way they view technology.

Much has already been written on the impact of tech on student achievement (I especially like this piece) but something I haven’t seen a ton of writing on is the impact of the various methods we now have for radically asynchronous communication.

We’ve had async communication for decades – whether it be snail mail, answering machines, even email.  I’m not talking about those as they have a fairly simple linear model of traversing previous interactions.  If you wrote a letter and received one in response, the context of the response would often make sense.  Sure, you don’t have your stimulus verbatim in front of you, but you likely don’t pen dozens of letters to dozens of different people with dozens of different topics within a given month so your ability to remember with some fidelity what it was about which you wrote to your friend is decent.  Email and text messaging enabled threads so context was rarely lost (unless the original stimulus mail was unclear) and this is what most of my generation grew up with.  Our minds came to expect a fairly threaded conversation model whether it be through ‘quoting’ blogs posts, threading in discussion boards, or even referencing parts of emails to enable a fruitful dialog.

When I see today’s students using today’s communication methods something strikes me: we’ve entered into a phase of asynchronous communication without context.  The impacts on the minds of kids is something that I hope to study (maybe this is a good sabbatical topic while I’m lounging in Crete).  Today’s conversations happening on Facebook, Twitter, and other real time sites require a fundamental shift in thinking about communication.  Namely that often a response often arrives a significant amount of time from the initial stimulus and often after the sender has issued dozens more messages to other people.  In other words, the response you receive in Twitter (via an @ or even a DM) often arrives some amount of time later, without the initial context under which you sent it, and in the meantime, you likely have sent many more tweets on different topics – often times to the recipient of the initial stimulus. 

Thus the impetus is on the sender to be able to reconcile vast amounts of information sans context in order to even hold a ‘conversation’ using these media.  Facebook is better in that people can still see threads, but the usage patterns of some of the students I’ve witnessed mean they get ‘updates’ sent to an email address and rarely visit the site to see the originating thread.

The implications of this rewiring of communication I think is fascinating.  Are these kids who are growing up with this short-burst, context-free, what we old folks would call ‘confusing and noisy’ communication styles going to be masters of symbolic computation, their ability to assemble seemingly random bits of signal dwarfing their parents’ abilities?  Or will it result in such a level of fracturism (is this a word?) in their thought processes that they become unable to focus on even the simplest linear problem?  Likely it’ll be a bit of both since nothing is this clear when it comes to cognitive development.

Since I’m a huge fan of the malleability of the child mind, I’m going with the more hopeful outcome.  I hope that this fundamental shift in the underlying form of communication will yield people who will be forced to think harder about information they receive – after all they will be used to it.  They will have to rack their brains for meaning when hearing a ‘fact’ – they will have to rapidly assemble the other bits of flotsam they’ve accumulated into something resembling a cogent thought.  The ability to be fooled by something purporting to even contain context (say, something from Rush Limbaugh’s “excellence in broadcasting" system) will be diminished as their ability to associate other seemingly random thoughts to fact-check said context is broadened. 

Of course, I could be overreaching.  Would be interested to know others thoughts.

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