2 May 2009

Facebook hurts grades (or does it?)

danah boyd blogs an overview of a story that made it to Fox News in the US but hasn't yet made it here in the UK that claims that Facebook users get lower undergraduate grades than non users. The story rapidly proliferated in online and print media. To cut a long story short, she shows that numbers of academics (summarised here at First Monday) have since demonstrated that the story is based on a media misunderstanding of an un-reviewed draft piece of statistically unrepresentative and insignificant research. She uses this to illustrate the media's need for folk devils and sensationalism.

This particular folk devil - technology as a destroyer/fragmenter of attention - is central to much of the debate about technology in education and young peoples engagement with technology across the whole of their social being. In the UK most recently Baroness Greenfield - a prominent neuroscientist - addressed the House of Lords on the consequences for young people of games, IM, chat and social networking sites. This was picked up by most UK media and presented with only slight differences by such sources as the Guardian and the Mail. This is the Guardian:
"Greenfield warns social networking sites are changing children's brains, resulting in selfish and attention deficient young people"
It's interesting to compare this with the thoughts of Chris Applegate - a "twentysomething geek and wannabe polymath" who works for a digital agency specialising in conversations online. In "Distracting ourselves to attention" he writes:
"Discussion here is dominated by Twitter, but for “Twitter”, read anything new, distracting and disturbing in Web 2.0 that is emerging or will emerge in the near future...we choose to adopt them because we are able to as well as because we’re willing. This can appear puzzling to the outsider, and the only way to join in (if you want to join in) is to produce and consume more information to help train up one’s filters"
As danah boyd reminds us:
"There is little doubt that each new wave of media has fundamentally altered the
structure of many aspects of everyday life (McLuhan 1964), but it is not clear that
new media is the destroyer of culture" (p19).
Baroness Greenfield may be right that technology will impact children's neurological development. Is this a negative development as the press presents it? Could we or should we do anything about it? The question remains what are we educating our children for? and what knowledge acquisition situations and environments must we provide in order to achieve this? Where do children do their learning? It's clear we are far from consensus.

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