Is Moodle making us (and our students) stupid?

Well, not just Moodle I guess, but any technological innovation that is over-enthusiastically and zealously adopted, uncritically, by a school, college or university?
At the university where I work, the technological pace has picked up quickly in recent years. In the last couple of years, a new Moodle platform has been implemented to replace the failing WebCT system that we had; iPads have been given to all staff; new members of staff have been appointed to assist staff with what is hoped will be their ‘technologically enhanced’ teaching; on many courses students themselves are being given iPads for use during their studies; electronic submission of assignments is fast becoming the norm; and I could go on.
But for many of us, the embrace of technology in our professional and private lives is far from ideal and not something that should advance unchecked. Many writers are expressing increasing reservations about the impact of mobile and social technologies and the detrimental effect they play in our lives. This is particularly true in an educational context. If this week is anything to go by, it seems that these technologies are being adopted without sustained critical thought to their limitations and, indeed, the very things that are being lost as they replace alternative approaches.
Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future presents a compelling alternative that we would be wise to consider. In his wonderful blog on this book, Peter Lawler asks the question about whether this might be both the smartest and dumbest generation that has ever existed? Discuss!
Through twelve provocative points (read them here), he amplifies Bauerlein’s thesis in a highly entertaining way that I’m happy to blatantly copy here:
  1. Virtually all of our students have hours—and often many, many hours—of daily exposure to screens.
  2. So they excel at multitasking and interactivity, and they have very strong spatial skills.
  3. They also have remarkable visual acuity; they’re ready for rushing images and updated information.
  4. But these skills don’t transfer well to—they don’t have much to do with—the non-screen portions of their lives.
  5. Their screen experiences, in fact, undermine their taste and capacity for building knowledge and developing their verbal skills.
  6. They, for example, hate quiet and being alone. Because they rely so much on screens keeping them connected, they can’t rely on themselves. Because they’re constantly restless or stimulated, they don’t know what it is to enjoy civilized leisure. The best possible punishment for an adolescent today is to make him or her spend an evening alone in his or her room without any screens, devices, or gadgets to divert him or her. It’s amazing the extent to which screens have become multidimensional diversions from what we really know about ourselves.
  7. Young people today typically are too agitated and impatient to engage in concerted study. Their imaginations are impoverished when they’re visually unstimulated. So their eros is too. They can’t experience anxiety as a prelude to wonder, and they too rarely become seekers and searchers.
  8. They have trouble comprehending or being moved by the linear, sequential analysis of texts
  9. So they find it virtually impossible to spend an idle afternoon with a detective story and nothing more.
  10. That’s why they can be both so mentally agile and culturally ignorant. That’s even why they know little to nothing about how to live well with love and death, as well as why their relational lives are so impoverished.
  11. And that’s why higher education—or liberal education—has to be about giving students experiences that they can’t get on screen. That’s even why liberal education has to have as little as possible to do with screens.
  12. Everywhere and at all times, liberal education is countercultural. And so today it’s necessarily somewhat anti-technology, especially anti-screen.  That’s one reason among many I’m so hard on MOOCs, online courses, PowerPoint, and anyone who uses the word “disrupting” without subversive irony.
I like that Lawler highlights, simultaneously, the potential affordances and limitations of screens  and the experiences that they present. However, I’m sure that there is much here that folk will agree and disagree with. For me, though, point 11 is telling and I agree entirely with him on this. Higher education, liberal education, in fact any education, must be about giving students experiences that they can’t get on screen, not just seek to replicate things on screens in insipid ways. It is just too important to follow cultural or technological norms.
This is particularly important, to me, for processes of initial teacher education. Here, human relationships are central to the effectiveness of the training programme. For me, the university tutor and student relationship is of particular concern. But you could say the same about the school mentor and student relationship, or the peer to peer relationships that students develop.
In one of our sessions this week, an English tutor on one of MMU’s programmes spoke eloquently about how he builds strong relationships with each of his trainees from the earliest opportunity, well before the commencement of the course and the moment that a student arrives on campus. Much of this centred around current students meeting up with and mentoring new students, a Saturday event where various pre-course readings are shared and discussed, and much more besides.
Another colleague at the university whom I know well and respect immensely lectures in human communication. Despite being an expert in these matters, he has chosen recently, like Lawler, to banish screens in their various incarnations from his lecture hall.
Is Moodle making us and our students stupid? On balance, I think it is. Whilst there will be those who argue pragmatically for the benefits of these digital tools (saved administrative costs, ease of access to materials, etc, etc), we must all remember what we are also loosing. Screens divide. They result in disengagement in the learning process.  They diminish the human interactions and relationships that are an essential part of, and integral to (I would argue) the educational process.

One thought on “Is Moodle making us (and our students) stupid?

  1. Interesting set of issues to mull over Jonathan. I like the idea that we need a corrective to the rhetoric of ‘disruptive’ technology creating revolution after revolution in the ways we live. I am not sure though that the anti-technology, anti-screen notion is the best way to express it. I tend to think that screens are just rather overrated, just as Moodle is rather overrated. Neither, by themselves, provides what I would consider a great educational experience. More than not, they simply mediate other peoples’ values and beliefs. In the case of Moodle, the belief in managing learning around aims and objectives, and with screens in general, the move towards ever greater control and surveillance for power and profit.

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