Write Stuff – E-Brains

The biggest push in education right now seems to be the joyful surge of students rushing headlong toward the exits, ready for sun and fun. But there’s a larger change afoot?one that might be part of your own curriculum when class bells ring this September. From public schools to universities, paper books are rapidly making way for e-texts. The cool new option is sure to excite students, but is it really doing much for their brains?

The question wouldn’t be as urgent if students were assured of a choice. Ideally, those who prefer to flip through their dog-eared copies of Hamlet could do so, while their classmates could scribble margin notes onscreen with a stylus. Unfortunately, some schools aren’t offering that option. In New Jersey, the Edison Township School District will be the first in the state ?to implement an entirely iPad-based Algebra 1 curriculum.? Using the HMH Fuse app, students can access over 400 video tutorials, while teachers can ?monitor performance via Wi-Fi, with real-time, student-specific feedback.?

Still other schools are making the shift in chunks. In Berkshire, UK, Wellington College plans to replace ?thousands of its books with a state-of-the-art library that uses iPads.? Every student already has access to a laptop, and the library update will see half of the main collection’s 20,000 books go digital.

In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has plans to ?make e-readers possible in all public schools, grades kindergarten through high school, through funding earmarked specifically for digital content.? Although the 2015 school year is slotted for the plan’s main rollout, at least one Florida high school already issued ?Kindle readers to all of its students for the 2010-2011 school year.?

Clearly the rush toward e-learning is on, and there’s no denying its appeal. One recent survey of 1,214 college students found that over ?two-thirds of them showed overwhelming interest in tablet devices, and believed that tablets would transform higher education.? Only a small percentage of those students actually owned tablets, but 73 per cent of users preferred e-texts over print.

In a different survey, elementary and high school students showed a preference for digital material as well. The Commonwealth of Virginia summarizes these findings ahead of its final report: e-books increased student engagement with the material; teachers noted a ?dramatic increase in the students? independence and willingness to be responsible for learning on their own?; and students enjoyed learning at their own pace with digital texts.

Yet as every teacher knows, sometimes learning the best lessons means asking the tough questions. When it comes to digital classrooms, the question is simple: are e-books good for our brains? And, in a broader sense, does physical interaction with books, and even handwriting, provide skills the digital world can’t replace?

The first question was addressed in a New York Times Room for Debate column back in 2009. The Times asked five well-respected voices to weigh in?and their opinions should prompt school boards and educators to pause before rushing to convert to digital classrooms.

One contributor, Sandra Aamodt, is the former editor-in-chief of Nature Neuroscience. She noted that although ?people read more slowly on screen, by as much as 20-30 percent,? that gap is slowly shrinking as we become more accustomed to digital texts. As well, improved e-ink technology on many reading devices makes paper and digital reading virtually the same.

Still, deeper concerns remain?quite literally. In a classroom where hyperlinks abound, and where students can quickly skim from text to video to audio, how will they develop the ability to focus, to read deeply? And if they can’t focus, what does it matter how many slick digital tools they have if none of the information sticks in their brains?

In that same Room for Debate session, Maryanne Wolf (the John DiBiaggio Professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts) raised that pivotal issue. She noted this fascinating fact about the human brain: in reading, our brains learn to ?access and integrate within 300 milliseconds a vast array of visual, semantic, sound (or phonological), and conceptual processes, which allows us to decode and begin to comprehend a word.? And you thought your new laptop was fast.

We kick things up a notch after those 300 milliseconds, though. Apparently, That’s when our brain circuits go beyond absorbing the text and we start to think about it. As Wolf writes, That’s when we spend the next 100 to 200 milliseconds on ?an even more sophisticated set of comprehension processes?: we move from basic comprehension to ?inference, analogical reasoning, critical analysis, contextual knowledge, and finally, the apex of reading: our own thoughts that go beyond the text.?

And That’s where the hyperlinked classroom needs a lot more research before it becomes the norm. Being engaged by tablets and e-readers is one thing, but if students are clicking to the next animation or video before that crucial reasoning phase kicks in, how much of the lesson have they truly absorbed? In other words, will a reliance on digital materials train our kids? brains to go blank as soon as the screen does?

The benefits of analogue learning extend beyond reading to writing as well. Not typing, but the physical act of pushing a pencil across a page. A recent LA Times article reports that handwriting and typing affect the brain in very different ways. Researchers at Indiana University found several differences, but perhaps the most important one is that handwriting improved the brain activation of preliterate preschool children.

Two groups of preschoolers were shown letters. One group simply practiced viewing and saying the letters; the other group practiced printing them. At the end of four weeks, the preschoolers who wrote the letters ?showed brain activation similar to an adult?s,? and their recognition of the letters was higher than that of the children who didn’t do any writing.

So does all this mean that the switch to digital classrooms is folly? Of course not. E-texts, tablets, and the Internet can bring learning to exciting new levels. Videos and interactive apps can complement traditional books. Hyperlinks can lead students of all ages to serendipitous discoveries and reignite a passion for discovery and learning. The Internet can open students? eyes to a much broader world, opening dialogue between kids halfway around the globe.

But before we rush to abandon older teaching methods, it looks like we’ve got a lot more homework to do.