Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Does Technology Hinder Learning?

Many people today are proclaiming the enormous advances of technology in education.  Here, at the Legal Skills Prof Blog, we have been more cautious.  We acknowledge the importance of technology in legal education, but we also recognize that it has a downside; technology may hinder learning because it does things the brain should be doing for itself.  This is demonstrated by a study by the University College London, which was published this week.  (here)

"Previous UCL research has shown that the hippocampi of London taxi drivers expand as they learn 'the Knowledge', memorising the streets and landmarks of central London. The latest study suggests that drivers who follow satnav directions do not engage their hippocampus, likely limiting any learning of the city street network."  [Note: by expand they mean gets physically larger; the brain actually grows.  This is true of all learning.  Learning grows the brain.]

"The study, published in Nature Communications and funded by Wellcome, involved 24 volunteers navigating a simulation of Soho in central London while undergoing brain scans. The researchers investigated activity in the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory and navigation, and the prefrontal cortex which is involved in planning and decision-making. They also mapped the labyrinth of London's streets to understand how these brain regions reacted to them.

When volunteers navigated manually, their hippocampus and prefrontal cortex had spikes of activity when volunteers entered new streets. This brain activity was greater when the number of options to choose from increased, but no additional activity was detected when people followed satnav instructions."

In other words, when drivers did not use a gps, their brains were more active; they were learning.  However, when they used a gps, they did not engage their hippocampi; they did not grow their brains.  Significantly, when drivers used gps, they turned off all alternatives except the one given by the gps so they were also not using their prefrontal cortexes.  They had switched off part of their brains.  They lacked critical thought.

While this is an isolated study, it has enormous consequences for learning.  Before the gps, cabbies learned the streets of London, and, in the process, they grew their brains.  Now, cabbies just follow gps with no real thinking involved.  Are London cabbies better off today, or, were they better off with no technology?  Without the knowledge in their hipocampi, cabbies can no longer do the problem-solving of their profession.  Does this extend to other parts of their lives?

I can think of similar examples.  Students today use calculators and computers to do math, instead of learning it step-by-step, as we did when I went to elementary school.  Have today's students lost anything?  How can they understand math if they have never actually done it?  How can advances be made in math and science if practitioners don't understand math?

One thing that all education scholars agree upon is that learning is hard; there are no shortcuts to effective learning.  While technology can help us enormously, we must first do the hard work of learning the basics.  Only then will we be able to use technology in the most effective manner.

(Scott Fruehwald)

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