Is Everything Bad Good for You?

In an interview for Online Learning and News (4th Jan 2006) [I can’t give you a direct link to the article yet as it comes in an email format, then gets archived on the main site – and it’s not archived yet…hmmmm!] Steven Johnson, author of "Everything Bad is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Cultur is Actually Making us Smarter" made these comments:

"OLNR: Your book contends that the presence of multiple media options (movies, wikis, blogs, cable TV) improves our cognitive abilities to deal with complex, multifaceted problems, but trainers know that merely including new technology in courses doesn’t necessarily improve results. How can various media options best be used to improve learning?

SJ: I think one of the main problems is that by introducing new forms of technology, you end up spending most of your time teaching people to use the technology, instead of having them use the technology to learn. Partially, I suspect this is a problem that will fade as more people are true "digital natives" who are comfortable — who even enjoy — adopting new technology without reading the manual.

But I think if you’re giving people tools that are truly responsive and offer immediate feedback, tools that let people express their own thoughts and views on the world — blogs and wikis are a great example — then I think you’ll find people being much more willing to scale those learning curves. Partially, that’s because the new tools are so much more human than the old ones were. Using a computer training program 10 years ago was an exercise in humiliation a lot of the time — you were asking a real person to interact with a relatively stupid piece of code. But blogs and wikis are about interaction among real people, and so the feedback is that much more rewarding."

I still contend that no matter how "digital native" or not the learners are, no matter how intuitive the software is (and hey, a lot of it isn’t!) some time needs to be allocated to getting to grips with the ins and outs of the technology before any learning can take place.  If the learner is focused on how to get the software to perform some function – simple or complex – then that’s where there attention is focused – not on the learning task. Taking some time out from the content or focus of learning and spending some time up front with the learners ensuring the technology is mastered to a comfortable level makes all the difference!

(You may be familiar with other books from Steven Johnson – Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Mind Wide Open : Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life, Interface Culture : How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate )