Millennials, computer use and you

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The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about Your Brain on Computers. The article presents an unbiased view of the rampant technology use by both adults and children, in this era of data bombardment.  We are spending more time researching and talking to faculty about the Millennial generation, their traits and possible methods for engaging them in educational settings.  Below are some quotes from the article that struck a chord with my experiences at PSU.

One recurring theme in the article dealt with data bombardment and multitasking. 

"Scientists say juggling e-mail, phone calls and other incoming information can change how people think and behave. They say our ability to focus is being undermined by bursts of information. These play to a primitive impulse to respond to immediate opportunities and threats. The stimulation provokes excitement -- a dopamine squirt -- that researchers say can be addictive. In its absence, people feel bored."

This is a key theme we run into in many of our meetings with faculty.  'Students can't sit still and focus for an hour in my course, they are always checking their cell phones or laptops'.  I understand the frustrations, but I'm also starting to understand more about how dopamine works, specifically around rewards and learning.  One of my favorite designers, Raph Koster, explains dopamine in the context of video games.  Good games are always built around reward structures, and when you learn how to overcome an obstacle and rewarded in the game, your brain typically releases a dopamine burst.  Essentially, Koster posits, you're high on natural, biological drugs when you play a good game and, to a lesser extent, learn new things.  Could a class session be structured more like a game, encouraging learning but in the context of this reward structure to keep students interested and solicit this same biological effect?

Another portion of the article deals with multitasking. 

"While many people say multitasking makes them more productive, research shows otherwise. Heavy multitaskers actually have more trouble focusing and shutting out irrelevant information, scientists say, and they experience more stress."
The article goes on to weigh both positives and negatives around multitasking, citing several different researchers.  What I would consider the negatives tended to outweigh the positives, with one example explaining that heavy multitaskers often tend to forgo valuable information that could be leveraged immediately, opting instead to continue searching and sifting through other data sources.  The article also goes on to cite researchers talking about neuroplasticity; that is, the ability for the brain to continue to adapt and change during our lives.  The old school of thought was that the brain stopped adapting after childhood.  The new hypothesis is that the bombardment of data via all our current data sources is actually beginning to change our neural networks of the brain. This could present yet another disconnect in the millennial classroom; the brains of faculty, compared to students, are physically different and wired differently.

My favorite quote of the article deals with the need to always be connected, always checking email, IMs, new sites and other data sources.

"Throughout evolutionary history, a big surprise would get everyone's brain thinking," said Clifford Nass, a communications professor at Stanford. "But we've got a large and growing group of people who think the slightest hint that something interesting might be going on is like catnip. They can't ignore it."
This phenomenon I do witness with some of my students, and to me this is my tipping point.  I can understand the desire to check, with a high level of frequency, email and your favorite interactive websites.  But when that desire to check data sources turns into a 'I can't stop myself because I might be missing something' philosophy...I struggle to find a positive angle to this. 

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Thinking about the article's take on neuroplasticity, I wonder:

How much exposure does it take before our brains begin reconfiguring themselves? And can our brains have two different operating modes that coexist?

In other words, if we've been exposed both to highly wired environments and to other environments where the interesting information comes from low-tech sources, could our brains automatically adjust as we move between environments? I'd guess that they can ... but I'm assuming two things:

1) There's actually something interesting going on in the environment fairly frequently (like in a well-designed class);

2) The learner gains some experience or training in filtering information and coping with moments when there's an "information ebb" and not just "information high tide."

I think part of our job as teachers is to make sure the conditions for (1) and (2) are met in our classrooms. But easier said than done....

I hadn't thought about the two different modes of operating. My initial thought would be probably not, but that's just based on my minuscule understanding of neuroplasticity. What I recall is that the brain changes itself based on frequent, repetitive behaviors sustained over long periods of time. I feel like there's some sort of connection here with your subconscious...that all these interactions that change your brain and how you're wired almost happen at the subconscious level, so going back might be difficult.

Changes in how the brain responds or what it responds to are real, physical changes in the neuronal structure and they do take a very long time. But, as the article points out, we know that the brain continues to change in adults.

I would guess that students whose brains are wired to gain pleasure from a text message or the virtual annihilation of virtual zombies *could* learn to gain pleasure by something less technological, but it would take a long time for it to happen and require that they be cut off from the old sources of pleasure, kind of like an alcoholic or drug addict must abstain completely from the addictive agent to learn to cope without it.

"I would guess that students whose brains are wired to gain pleasure from a text message or the virtual annihilation of virtual zombies *could* learn to gain pleasure by something less technological"

I think the pleasure experienced might go beyond the specifics of a text message or annihilating zombies to more abstract characteristics of those activities, the big one being immediacy.

For instance, imagine a classroom that somehow provided students with instantaneous feedback whenever they completed an in-class exercise. I think clickers and other live polling systems used in a pedagogically sound manner have the potential to really increase engagement due to their immediacy. Google forms and Harvard's Live Question Tool allow students to instantly voice an opinion, but also receive immediate feedback on how their opinion stacks up to their classmates.

Does that fire off the same dopamine shot or pleasure response as a text message or shooting a zombie? I have no idea, but I think they both hit on this idea of immediacy in a similar fashion (and maybe even the social aspect too!)

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