Teachers Report Mixed Impact of Digital Media

By Ian Quillen — November 06, 2012 4 min read

Educators say digital tools used both inside classrooms and outside schools in students’ personal lives are having a mixed impact on students’ academic and social development, according to two surveys released last week.

For example, many teachers believe the Internet and digital tools overall have positively affected how students do research, but at the same time have hurt their attention spans, concludes a survey from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project that examined the impact of digital media on students’ research habits.

A separate survey from Common Sense Media found many teachers believe entertainment media—including not only computer-based tools like social networks and video games, but also music, film, television, and text-message communication—to be harmful to students’ overall academic and social development, while at the same time helping students learn how to find information quickly and manage multiple tasks.

The feedback from teachers does not necessarily mirror research on media effects on youth, which remains mixed.

The report from the Pew Research Center in Washington also found that a sizable majority of teachers believe students need more training in judging the quality of information. That is an area of specialization for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based youth-media watchdog group that, among other services, offers schools a free digital-literacy curriculum from its website.

Ann Flynn, the director of education technology for the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said the surveys point to two needs: “The first is how much we need parents actually engaged in helping to craft the viewing decisions for students,” she said. And the second, she said, is that schools need to ensure digital literacy is an integral part of their curricula.

“In an era of Google, maybe we’ve moved too far away from the exercise of learning how to do research with the [other] tools,” Ms. Flynn said. In light of such concerns, teachers should focus on assignments that require students to use multiple methods of research, rather than just Google, Yahoo, or other search engines, she said.

But the mixed results of the surveys should not discourage educators from continuing to search for new and different ways to integrate technology into learning, Ms. Flynn emphasized.

“Students need to develop [digital-literacy] skills, and the place you develop those skills is in school,” she said.

The Pew findings stem from an online survey of more than2,000 middle and high school teachers who are involved in the National Writing Project or are teaching Advanced Placement courses, as well as follow-up online and face-to-face focus groups held with middle and high school teachers, and some of their students, according to the report.

The surveyed teachers were diverse by geography and subject matter, but were more likely than the average teacher—perhaps because of their connections to AP teaching or the National Writing Project—to have more academically successful students, the Pew report says.

Among those surveyed, more than three-quarters said the overall impact of the Internet and digital search tools on students was “mostly positive,” according to the report. But 87 percent said those same technologies are creating a generation of students who have short attention spans, and 64 percent said the tools are more of an academic distraction than an academic benefit.

Not Recognizing Bias

Further, while teachers almost universally agreed that the Internet allowed their students access to a wider range of resources than otherwise possible, they were also more likely to rate a range of students’ digital research skills as “poor” rather than “excellent.” About a third of those teachers called their students’ ability to recognize bias in online content “poor,” and 43 percent said the same of students’ patience and determination in looking for hard-to-find information, the Pew report says.

From its own national survey of 700 teachers of K-12 classes, Common Sense Media found that 71 percent of respondents said they believed entertainment media—whose broad definition by the study encompasses movies and music that aren’t normally considered educational technology tools—have a net negative impact on students’ attention spans.

Further, its report says, nearly three in five teachers said they felt use of such media has hurt students’ communication skills, both written and face to face.

Surveyed teachers were selected, according to the report, by a combination of randomly chosen addresses and telephone numbers using a method meant to replicate national teacher opinions with 95 percent accuracy.

In addition to academic pursuits, the Common Sense Media report says, teachers found such media to negatively affect a wide range of aspects of students’ social development. Two-thirds of teachers said they believe such media negatively affected students’ sexualization; roughly three in five saw a negative impact on students’ ideas about relationships between the genders or with older authority figures, as well as on students’ public behavior and body image.

Staff writer Katie Ash contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the November 07, 2012 edition of Education Week as Digital Tools Seen as Good and Bad, Surveys Suggest


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