Research Funds for Technophiles

Mark Bauerlein wonders if the new programs to study the impact of digital culture on students and learning are really open-minded.

May 20, 2008

When the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced in October 2006 the Digital Learning Initiative, it promised an objective investigation into “how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize, and participate in civic life.” MacArthur pledged $50 million to the effort, and planned to fund research, host symposia, and issue papers as part of an inquiry to help us understand the nature and value, benefits and dangers, of what is now a central fact in the leisure lives of kids. What has actually transpired in the project, however, is sadly indicative of the way serious study of technology and education has often succumbed to the attractions of the very thing it aims to examine.

In the case of the MacArthur program, the effects emerged soon after the program began. The statements that it issued and the panels it convened evinced a different approach than open inquiry. Among the basic questions the inquiry might have posed was whether social networking boosts academic performance, or whether Web 2.0 activities improve reading and writing skills. We would expect some consideration, too, of flat reading scores, remedial course enrollment, complaints from employers about writing skills of recent grads, and other poor findings in the area.

Such questions, it turned out, the initiative bypassed. On June 26, 2007, MacArthur’s president, Jonathan Fanton, penned an op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer (“With Prodigious Leaps, Children Move to the Technological Forefront”) that disclosed a credulous and presumptive understanding of youth habits. He marveled, for instance, at how “today’s digital youth are in the process of creating a new kind of literacy,” and observed that, as they enter virtual zones, kids assimilate “new languages and rules, vast troves of research.” Only one note of skepticism sounded, and it applied to the elders: “The downside may be that we, in the sunset of the old information culture, are not understanding this new media literacy soon enough.”

The panels MacArthur convened exhibited a similar devotion to youth digital culture. The point at each was to understand, not judge, and several participants appeared to have a vested interest in the outcome. At one of them, headed, “Do Video Games Help Kids Learn?” one speaker planned to “demo his latest project, Quest Atlantis, an immersive world designed to help each science to junior high school students.” Another one aimed to “share her experience creating an innovative digital media after school program,” while the third and last one, author of a book on computer-assisted learning, would “discuss his latest research on games and learning.”

Another meeting took place last April at Stanford, “New Media in the Everyday Lives of Youth.” Berkeley covered the event, and once again enthusiasm ruled the sessions, plus a note of ridicule as well. “UC Berkeley researcher danah boyd (her spelling), like other forum participants,” the reported noted, “eschewed the hand wringing that often accompanies adult discussions of young people's use of new media.” I wrote an e-mail to the reporter regretting that she didn’t allow any skeptical voices to gainsay the “handwringing” charge. She replied that she “would have quoted critical voices if there had been any; all enthusiasts that night.”

This is a strangely partisan tone for an inquiry that admits we don’t know exactly how digital culture affects learning, but the panelists could have taken their cue from key figures in the Initiative. Cathy Davidson is one of them, a professor at Duke who serves on the advisory board. In The Chronicle of Higher Education (27 March 2007), Davidson outlined some of the work of the Initiative, including a series of public forums out of which Davidson and others would collect a “Hall of Vision” containing “examples of the most inventive learning we have found in the country, learning that is collaborative and forward-looking.” One could ponder whether inventive learning is, indeed, always collaborative and forward-looking, but not Davidson. In her next sentence she puts such queries where they belong, in a “Hall of Shame.” “We will also include a ‘Hall of Shame’ for retrograde and unthinking reactions to new technologies.”

I’ve never heard of a research project compiling a blacklist of dissenters, and I don’t think the Hall of Shame ever happened. But the very thought of it is revealing, especially because Davidson doesn’t clarify the line between thinking reactions and unthinking reactions, a clarification crucial to the Initiative.

Consider another example, Henry Jenkins, MIT professor and main author of the only “Occasional Paper” listed on the Digital Learning web site. Jenkins’ enthusiasm for digital activities comes through on every page of the report. As for disdain of skeptics, that surfaced in a conversation with Steven Johnson in a keynote event at the South by Southwest Festival (SXSW) in Austin last March. Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good for You, opened the discussion with a question to Jenkins about “the emergence of books such as The Dumbest Generation and the big NEA report about the decline of reading among kids today.” Jenkins responded: "Never underestimate the desire of parents to see their children dumb. It’s easy to imagine our children as failures. And they are going into worlds that are unknown to us, and were not a part of our play when we were their age. Kids are early adopters of all new technologies. And they do it outside the watchful eyes of their parents. So there’s a sense of fear among parents.... All it takes is one instance of a Columbine or declining test scores, and we have the making of a moral panic."

This is quite a leap from a government report on reading to shootings in Colorado, but Jenkins aligns them both with a consequent “moral panic.” To him, the report and the book Johnson mentioned are simply benighted, anxious reactions to things parents don’t understand. How Jenkins could draw the conclusion is a mystery, though, since the book didn’t appear in bookstores for another three months. I’m the author, and its full title is The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Threatens Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30. I was also a contributor to the NEA report, "To Read Or Not To Read: A Question of National Consequence."

This is not to fault Jenkins, Davidson, and MacArthur for arguing the benefits of digital learning, or for disputing the claims of skeptics and dissenters. It is to fault them for not allowing a dispute to happen through open debate. In a word, they stigmatize the other side. In doing so, they turn the Digital Learning Initiative into an advocacy program, not a research project. The first rule of research is to consider evidence from all sources, to open the marketplace to anybody willing to observe norms of evidence and collegiality. Throwing labels such as “moral panic” and “Hall of Shame” breaks the rule, and when the speakers have $50 million behind them, it corners the market on legitimacy. MacArthur and other sponsors of digital learning would serve the research and policy worlds better if they allowed more reflection into their programming and tempered the enthusiasm of participants with the presence of dissenters.


Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.


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