The common assumption among educators is that technology, especially online sorts of things like Social Media and Web 2.0 tools, is good for kids. By using these tools, we can expand our classrooms, connect with experts, create Personal Learning Networks and generate wonderful products.

We often cite research showing that use of the web increases brain activity and encourages the growth of neural networks. The assumption is that this increased brain wiring is good for kids – that being online makes people smarter.

But we need to be careful with that sort of research. A recent Wired article does a great job of documenting what happens in our brains when we’re online. And it’s not necessarily good news.

Others and I have talked about this issue before.

And now Nicholas Carr discusses a wide range of research that is saying that hyperlinks, especially those that live inside text, cause comprehension problems. Examples?

People who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links

It takes hypertext readers longer to read documents and they were seven times more likely to say they found it confusing

Comprehension declines as the number of links increase – whether or not people clicked on them

A 2007 scholarly review of hypertext experiments concluded that jumping between digital documents impedes understanding. And if links are bad for concentration and comprehension, it shouldn’t be surprising that more recent research suggests that links surrounded by images, videos, and advertisements could be even worse

Carr also talks about Cognitive Load, the process of how short-term memory is transferred to long-term storage. In the pre-web world, the brain could better handle the load. But if too much information from too many sources tries to makes it into our long-term memory, we get just bits and pieces in no coherent pattern.

I was especially interested in learning more about what scientists are calling switching costs. Basically, switching costs become the price your brain pays when you decide to jump back and forth between different tasks.

Every time we shift our attention, the brain has to reorient itself, further taxing our mental resources. Many studies have shown that switching between just two tasks can add substantially to our cognitive load, impeding our thinking and increasing the likelihood that we’ll overlook or misinterpret important information.

The problem with online tools and the web is that there are increasingly more ways for those tools to encourage task switching. We begin to believe that we can multi-task, that we can focus on multiple things and still be productive. But a 2009 Stanford study looking at heavy media users suggests otherwise:

the heavy multitaskers were much more easily distracted, had significantly less control over their working memory and were generally much less able to concentrate on a task. Intensive multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy,” says Clifford Nass, one professor who did the research. “Everything distracts them.”

As we multitask online, one researcher summarized,

we are training our brains to pay attention to the crap.

Perhaps the most frightening sentence of Carr’s article?

The problem is that skimming is becoming our dominant mode of thought.

Carr cites another 2009 study by developmental psychologist Patricia Greenfield. She concluded that “every medium develops some cognitive skills at the expense of others.” She basically says that any gains that we make by using the web goes

hand in hand with a weakening of our capacity for the kind of “deep processing” that underpins “mindful knowledge acquisition, inductive analysis, critical thinking, imagination, and reflection.”

By focusing on superficial types of online activities such as Wordle or Prezi, by asking kids to read more online articles or encouraging the use of iPod apps, are we actually making our kids dumber instead of smarter? Are our students less able to analyze and think critically because of our well-intentioned but perhaps misguided instruction?

The irony of both the content of this post and its delivery method is not lost on me. I make my living working with teachers to incorporate effective learning strategies. A lot of what I do involves the use of online tools and social media.

But the research is making me uncomfortable. Where is the balance between the use of the web / social media and appropriate / effective teaching?

If nothing else, the research cited by Carr has made me stop and think a bit more about the kinds of things that I’ll be sharing with teachers from now on. I need to be more purposeful about finding and sharing strategies that address high level brain function rather than just those that seem “shiny” and new.

An example of this is something called Readability, a tool that strips all of the ads, pics and multimedia from online text lessening some of the effects cited in the research. It can even strip hyperlinks from text, creating a set of footnotes instead. I’m starting to use it and I’m pushing teachers to use it with kids.

Applied to this post, it looks like this:

It’s a small step but one I hope that’s in the right direction.

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