There’s a discussion going on in the Wired Campus blog on the question of how, to what extent, and with what effects students’ cognitive abilities are being altered by new technologies. The discussion was triggered by an article in The Sunday Times of London, “Report: The Next Step in Brain Evolution” by Richard Woods.
The basic argument is familiar. Given the pervasive use of mobile phones, instant text messaging, email, and blogs for communication, young people today are encountering so much information so rapidly that multi-tasking and on-the-fly assessment has become the norm accompanied by reduced attention spans and diminished ability to concentrate and reflect on ideas, engage in an extended conversation or discussion, analyze and critically interpret an argument or text, etc., etc.
When this phenomenon is present in the classroom, the instructor is faced with a dilemma: Do I do what I’ve always done and try to discipline them to listen to a lecture, take notes, and follow-up with questions and critical comments? Or do I completely rethink my approach by incorporating more discussion, multimedia presentations, online resources, and group collaborations?
Setting aside for the moment the question of whether this so-called dilemma accurately represents the situation, it’s worth noting the most provocative aspect of Woods’ article — the claim by cognitive scientist Andy Clark that today’s students (and everyone else immersed in digital technology) should be considered “cyborgs” given their radically altered cognitive behavior and emerging skills. Due to the interfaces and tools we use today, thinking is being increasingly externalized — taking place “outside the head” — to such an extent that “[i]t will soon be harder than ever to tell where the human user stops and the rest of the world begins”. (Edge’s Third Culture profile and article by Clark are here, and interview from 2004 at the Institute for the Future here, and the Wikipedia entry here.)
The notion that thoughts and mental content are not entirely “in the head” is not new to contemporary philosophers of mind (e.g. Fred Dretske, to take just one recent example). Debates between internalists and externalists have given rise to a vast literature on the topic. To what extent this is relevant to how students acquire and make use of information is not obvious to me. But surely we’ve reached the point where our reflections on the matter and our pedagogical responses can and should go beyond the anecdotal by taking advantage of current empirical evidence.
Actually, I’m probably less concerned about cyborgs than I am about zombies in the classroom.