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Does digital technology make students stupid?
Conventional wisdom believes "screen time" disrupts mental development, but research hints at a more complicated relationship between our minds and digital technology.
- Worry over test scores has led many to blame digital technology for waning educational achievement.
- New studies show that the persistent effects of "screen time" are not yet understood and may be short-lived.
- Many experts argue the best approach is to teach students the strategic and selective use of digital technology.
We've been here before. When books were the fresh new tech, Socrates believed they would spread an epidemic of forgetfulness. A millennium later, aristocrats fretted that the printing press would lead to mental overload among the masses. Then parents worried that calculators handicapped arithmetic skills and that e-mail would prove more harmful to IQ than pot.
Now, there's a new mind-mushing invention on the scene: digital technology.
According to a PBS poll, 53 percent of people believe that technology is making us dumber. Polling more than a thousand experts, the Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center and the Pew Internet Project found that 42 percent believed "the hyperconnected brain is shallow" and maintains "an unhealthy dependence on the Internet and mobile devices." And Nicholas Carr's Pulitzer Prize finalist book, The Shallows: How the Internet Is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember, says it right in the title.
But the worry over digital technology's place in the classroom isn't just the latest flare up of mob technophobia. It's fueled by high-profile events coinciding with the mass adoption of digital tech among students, leading to a strong associative relationship.
Digital technology enters the classroom
Consider Finland. At the beginning of the century, Finland's education system gained renown as the best in the world. It was a top performer in the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), scoring high in math and science and number one in reading. Educators flocked to the country to uncover its secret pedagogic spice.
But between 2006 and 2012, the country's scores fell sharply while other top performers remained steady. Several theories have been proffered for the trend reversal, among them the increased adoption of "screen time" technology.
As educator and policy adviser Pasi Shalberg told the Washington Post, Finnish girls outperform boys in reading, mathematics, and science. Finland is the only OECD country where girls outperform boys in the latter two subjects
Girls generally read for pleasure more than boys, and PISA test questions lean heavily on reading comprehension. As such, the appearance of digital technologies among school-aged children may have "accelerated this trend" — with boys' diminishing reading skills anchoring their test scores down.
Shalberg further posits that increased time spent on the internet for media and socializing may lead to difficulties in concentrating on complex issues, such as those found in math and science.
Another high-profile example comes from the United States, where technology's introduction into the classroom has been met with mixed results. As reported by the New York Times, Kansas students have staged sit-ins and walkouts to protest the use of Summit Learning Platform. Meanwhile, a Connecticut school district has suspended use of the same digital education system.
A personalized learning system backed by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Summit Learning uses online tools to generate customized education aimed at promoting self-directed learning. However, some students have found the screen-focused lessons isolating and anxiety-inducing, while parents worry over the effects an untested system will have on their children's mental development.
We the Parents, a parental organization that opposes mass-customized learning, believes systems like Summit are risky given their lack of proven efficacy. In a letter to the Indiana Area School District board, one member spelled out their concerns over Summit, including the argument that screen-based education removes children from the interpersonal connections that facilitate proper learning.
The letter states: "But lack of evidence does not give us 'a pass' to proceed without caution, and the truth is we have many clues that do not bode well when it comes to heavy uses of technology and our children's educational or socioemotional wellbeing" and "there is no real way to assess his learning outcomes until this little experiment on our children is measured later, after the damage has been done."
In other words, we are social learners, not digital ones.
Can we determine digital technology's lingering effects?
Examples like these have primed popular imagination to distrust digital technology's role in our cognitive development and maintaining mental acuity. But some recent studies have complicated the issue.
"There have been so many books and articles about how we may be relying so much on technology that we are losing some of our cognitive abilities ... but it hasn't been well studied. I can count on one hand the number of people studying the lingering effects of smartphone usage," Peter Frost, a professor of psychology at Southern New Hampshire University, told the Concord Monitor Report.
Deciding to analyze those lingering effects, Frost took his question and performed a study. First, Frost and his team analyzed college student phone usage and short-term cognitive abilities. They found that more smartphone usage correlated negatively with social problem-solving, but positively with the ability to make observations and judge the credibility of information.
He then assigned 50 undergrads to use their phones for less than two hours a day, while another group of 50 was assigned to more than five hours a day. At the one-week mark, the high-use students showed a diminished ability to interpret and analyze data. But at the four-week mark, that difference disappeared.
"The findings of this study suggest that, even in the rare cases where smartphones might alter cognition, this effect is likely transitory [and that] the mechanism by which smartphones initiate this temporary change remains an open question," Frost writes.
Another study, reported on in New Scientist, found that children who interacted with screens developed fine motor skills earlier, and no correlation was found that screen time interfered with developmental milestones like learning to walk and talk.
"[Digital technologies offer] unprecedented power, but there are still many important questions about these maddening, valuable devices that we have been unable to answer. What is clear, however, is that many initial reactions have been more knee-jerk than evidence-based," writes New Scientist consultant Douglas Heaven.
But you may have noticed something missing: causal links.
While the adoption of digital technology predates Finland's score drops, there's no direct evidence to suggest cause and effect. Another possible explanation offered by Shalberg includes Finland's post-2008 economic hardships. And although Summit Learning touts a collaboration with Harvard researchers, it has not let researchers study its specific platform.
Looking to the studies, we stumble into a chicken-and-egg problem. Do the students with improved judgement bolster such skills with their phones, or are students with such abilities more prone to high-usage? Does the phone help toddlers practice fine motor skills, or do more advanced children simply reach for the digital technology sooner?
Learning in the face of uncertainty
In many ways, researchers studying digital technology's effects on students face the same barriers as the nutritionist. Whether looking at diets that are digital or nutritive, it's difficult to persuade people to change their lives substantially over a protracted period of time. How many people do you know that would freely renounce all digital technology in the name of science? Or parents that would assign their child to a digital regimen where the deleterious effects are unknown?
And even should people agree, they can't be put in a lab for years to prove they stuck to the program. Our digital-laced reality means variables will creep into the data, and researchers end up relying on surveys to gather results.
None of this is to say that science can't ultimately provide evidence-based answers; just that such evidence is tricky to suss out and that digital technology is new and changing rapidly.
In the face of such uncertainty, many experts argue we should avoid the indiscriminate adoption of digital technology. Instead, our approach should be one of intention, only adopting the technologies we need to achieve a desired outcome.
This is the philosophy espoused by Cal Newport in his book Digital Minimalism, Douglas Rushkoff's Team Human podcast, and websites like the Tech Edvocate. Some developers are also adopting this philosophy, such as the digital-learning platform Cerego.
Cerego's adaptive-learning tools are designed to nurture learning and long-term retention. Students engage with the platform for cognitive work, but the lessons are spaced out to give their minds time to consolidate the information and to allow for non-digital learning experiences. The goal is to build stronger neural connections with the information, and approach it from multiple angles.
This approach stands in contrast to other digital systems, which profit through each point of engagement and so distract with continuous notifications designed to keep you on the platform.
"If I offered you an ax, you could use it as a tool of incredible destruction, or it could be a great benefit to you," Lewis said in an interview. "It's all about finding the right tool for the right mission. But remember: you wield the ax, not anybody else."
In a case study with Arizona State University's Global Freshman Academy, astronomy and health-and-wellness students who used Cerego and completed all the course sets scored better than students who did not, suggesting improved retention of foundational knowledge. (Though, in keeping with our theme, these results are correlative.)
And we've been here before. When calculators became widespread in elementary schools, parents and pundits worried that they would irrevocably harm the students' ability to learn mathematics. But math teachers chose to integrate them into the classroom with intentionality. Today, they teach students the "selective and strategic use" of calculators, improving not only math skills but reasoning and problem-solving skills in general.
As the evidence on digital technology continues to be cataloged, it seems the best approach is to consider it neither salubrious nor harmful. As such, the question shouldn't be whether they make students stupid. It's whether we are employing them in a way that deters or promotes mentally engaging activities.
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Astronomers find these five chapters to be a handy way of conceiving the universe's incredibly long lifespan.
- We're in the middle, or thereabouts, of the universe's Stelliferous era.
- If you think there's a lot going on out there now, the first era's drama makes things these days look pretty calm.
- Scientists attempt to understand the past and present by bringing together the last couple of centuries' major schools of thought.
The 5 eras of the universe<p>There are many ways to consider and discuss the past, present, and future of the universe, but one in particular has caught the fancy of many astronomers. First published in 1999 in their book <a href="https://amzn.to/2wFQLiL" target="_blank"><em>The Five Ages of the Universe: Inside the Physics of Eternity</em></a>, <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fred_Adams" target="_blank">Fred Adams</a> and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_P._Laughlin" target="_blank">Gregory Laughlin</a> divided the universe's life story into five eras:</p><ul><li>Primordial era</li><li>Stellferous era</li><li>Degenerate era</li><li>Black Hole Era</li><li>Dark era</li></ul><p>The book was last updated according to current scientific understandings in 2013.</p><p>It's worth noting that not everyone is a subscriber to the book's structure. Popular astrophysics writer <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/ethansiegel/#30921c93683e" target="_blank">Ethan C. Siegel</a>, for example, published an article on <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2019/07/26/we-have-already-entered-the-sixth-and-final-era-of-our-universe/#7072d52d4e5d" target="_blank"><em>Medium</em></a> last June called "We Have Already Entered The Sixth And Final Era Of Our Universe." Nonetheless, many astronomers find the quintet a useful way of discuss such an extraordinarily vast amount of time.</p>
The Primordial era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEyMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNjEzMjY1OX0.PRpvAoa99qwsDNprDme9tBWDim6mS7Mjx6IwF60fSN8/img.jpg?width=980" id="db4eb" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0e568b0cc12ed624bb8d7e5ff45882bd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1049" />
Image source: Sagittarius Production/Shutterstock<p> This is where the universe begins, though what came before it and where it came from are certainly still up for discussion. It begins at the Big Bang about 13.8 billion years ago. </p><p> For the first little, and we mean <em>very</em> little, bit of time, spacetime and the laws of physics are thought not yet to have existed. That weird, unknowable interval is the <a href="https://www.universeadventure.org/eras/era1-plankepoch.htm" target="_blank">Planck Epoch</a> that lasted for 10<sup>-44</sup> seconds, or 10 million of a trillion of a trillion of a trillionth of a second. Much of what we currently believe about the Planck Epoch eras is theoretical, based largely on a hybrid of general-relativity and quantum theories called quantum gravity. And it's all subject to revision. </p><p> That having been said, within a second after the Big Bang finished Big Banging, inflation began, a sudden ballooning of the universe into 100 trillion trillion times its original size. </p><p> Within minutes, the plasma began cooling, and subatomic particles began to form and stick together. In the 20 minutes after the Big Bang, atoms started forming in the super-hot, fusion-fired universe. Cooling proceeded apace, leaving us with a universe containing mostly 75% hydrogen and 25% helium, similar to that we see in the Sun today. Electrons gobbled up photons, leaving the universe opaque. </p><p> About 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the universe had cooled enough that the first stable atoms capable of surviving began forming. With electrons thus occupied in atoms, photons were released as the background glow that astronomers detect today as cosmic background radiation. </p><p> Inflation is believed to have happened due to the remarkable overall consistency astronomers measure in cosmic background radiation. Astronomer <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGCVTSQw7WU" target="_blank">Phil Plait</a> suggests that inflation was like pulling on a bedsheet, suddenly pulling the universe's energy smooth. The smaller irregularities that survived eventually enlarged, pooling in denser areas of energy that served as seeds for star formation—their gravity pulled in dark matter and matter that eventually coalesced into the first stars. </p>
The Stelliferous era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTEzNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMjA0OTcwMn0.GVCCFbBSsPdA1kciHivFfWlegOfKfXUfEtFKEF3otQg/img.jpg?width=980" id="bc650" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c8f86bf160ecdea6b330f818447393cd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="481" data-height="720" />
Image source: Casey Horner/unsplash<p>The era we know, the age of stars, in which most matter existing in the universe takes the form of stars and galaxies during this active period. </p><p>A star is formed when a gas pocket becomes denser and denser until it, and matter nearby, collapse in on itself, producing enough heat to trigger nuclear fusion in its core, the source of most of the universe's energy now. The first stars were immense, eventually exploding as supernovas, forming many more, smaller stars. These coalesced, thanks to gravity, into galaxies.</p><p>One axiom of the Stelliferous era is that the bigger the star, the more quickly it burns through its energy, and then dies, typically in just a couple of million years. Smaller stars that consume energy more slowly stay active longer. In any event, stars — and galaxies — are coming and going all the time in this era, burning out and colliding.</p><p>Scientists predict that our Milky Way galaxy, for example, will crash into and combine with the neighboring Andromeda galaxy in about 4 billion years to form a new one astronomers are calling the Milkomeda galaxy.</p><p>Our solar system may actually survive that merger, amazingly, but don't get too complacent. About a billion years later, the Sun will start running out of hydrogen and begin enlarging into its red giant phase, eventually subsuming Earth and its companions, before shrining down to a white dwarf star.</p>
The Degenerate era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTk3NDQyN30.gy4__ALBQrdbdm-byW5gQoaGNvFTuxP5KLYxEMBImNc/img.jpg?width=980" id="77f72" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="08bb56ea9fde2cee02d63ed472d79ca3" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Diego Barucco/Shutterstock/Big Think<p>Next up is the Degenerate era, which will begin about 1 quintillion years after the Big Bang, and last until 1 duodecillion after it. This is the period during which the remains of stars we see today will dominate the universe. Were we to look up — we'll assuredly be outta here long before then — we'd see a much darker sky with just a handful of dim pinpoints of light remaining: <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/evaporating-giant-exoplanet-white-dwarf-star" target="_blank">white dwarfs</a>, <a href="https://earthsky.org/space/new-observations-where-stars-end-and-brown-dwarfs-begin" target="_blank">brown dwarfs</a>, and <a href="https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/definition-what-is-a-neutron-star" target="_blank">neutron stars</a>. These"degenerate stars" are much cooler and less light-emitting than what we see up there now. Occasionally, star corpses will pair off into orbital death spirals that result in a brief flash of energy as they collide, and their combined mass may become low-wattage stars that will last for a little while in cosmic-timescale terms. But mostly the skies will be be bereft of light in the visible spectrum.</p><p>During this era, small brown dwarfs will wind up holding most of the available hydrogen, and black holes will grow and grow and grow, fed on stellar remains. With so little hydrogen around for the formation of new stars, the universe will grow duller and duller, colder and colder.</p><p>And then the protons, having been around since the beginning of the universe will start dying off, dissolving matter, leaving behind a universe of subatomic particles, unclaimed radiation…and black holes.</p>
The Black Hole era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjE0OTQ2MX0.ifwOQJgU0uItiSRg9z8IxFD9jmfXlfrw6Jc1y-22FuQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="103ea" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f0e6a71dacf95ee780dd7a1eadde288d" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1400" data-height="787" />
Image source: Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock/Big Think<p> For a considerable length of time, black holes will dominate the universe, pulling in what mass and energy still remain. </p><p> Eventually, though, black holes evaporate, albeit super-slowly, leaking small bits of their contents as they do. Plait estimates that a small black hole 50 times the mass of the sun would take about 10<sup>68</sup> years to dissipate. A massive one? A 1 followed by 92 zeros. </p><p> When a black hole finally drips to its last drop, a small pop of light occurs letting out some of the only remaining energy in the universe. At that point, at 10<sup>92</sup>, the universe will be pretty much history, containing only low-energy, very weak subatomic particles and photons. </p>
The Dark Era<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMjkwMTE5NC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0Mzg5OTEyMH0.AwiPRGJlGIcQjjSoRLi6V3g5klRYtxQJIpHFgZdZkuo/img.jpg?width=980" id="60c77" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7a857fb7f0d85cf4a248dbb3350a6e1c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="810" />
Image source: Big Think<p>We can sum this up pretty easily. Lights out. Forever.</p>
Dr. Katie Mack explains what dark energy is and two ways it could one day destroy the universe.
- The universe is expanding faster and faster. Whether this acceleration will end in a Big Rip or will reverse and contract into a Big Crunch is not yet understood, and neither is the invisible force causing that expansion: dark energy.
- Physicist Dr. Katie Mack explains the difference between dark matter, dark energy, and phantom dark energy, and shares what scientists think the mysterious force is, its effect on space, and how, billions of years from now, it could cause peak cosmic destruction.
- The Big Rip seems more probable than a Big Crunch at this point in time, but scientists still have much to learn before they can determine the ultimate fate of the universe. "If we figure out what [dark energy is] doing, if we figure out what it's made of, how it's going to change in the future, then we will have a much better idea for how the universe will end," says Mack.
A unique exoplanet without clouds or haze was found by astrophysicists from Harvard and Smithsonian.
- Astronomers from Harvard and Smithsonian find a very rare "hot Jupiter" exoplanet without clouds or haze.
- Such planets were formed differently from others and offer unique research opportunities.
- Only one other such exoplanet was found previously.
Munazza Alam – a graduate student at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian.
Credit: Jackie Faherty