Update: A modified form of this blog entry was published today in New Straits Times newspaper (2 Jun 2011)
Last Saturday was Parents-Teachers Day at my son’s pre-school. While my wife and I were waiting for our turn to see my son’s teacher, I noticed some parents giving their children iPad. One four-year-old child was watching a cartoon video on the iPad, whereas another (perhaps three years old) was playing some educational game.
This is not the first time I have seen young kids (even babies) with iPad. Scenes such as these are becoming more common. I suspect some parents see iPad as a convenient tool to occupy their children’s time and attention. iPad is certainly easy to carry and, from what I have witnessed, kids are captivated by the ease of use and the versatility iPad can show and do (such as games, videos, photos, picture books, and the internet).
However, I am worried. I am aware of the opportunities computers can offer to my son’s learning development. But I am also aware the harm computers can do. And no, I am not talking about the harm from UV radiation coming off the computer screen.
Those who have been following my blog might have noticed the importance I placed on reading. It isn’t just reading per se that is important. It is reading printed books that is crucial in our development on how we think and learn. Reading off the computer screen isn’t the same as reading from a page we can feel and smell.
Two books, one by Nicholas Carr (“What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains: The Shallows”) and Mark Bauerlein (“The Dumbest Generation: How Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future”) are the two most important books I have read this year. These books affirm by beliefs that reading is absolutely crucial in a child’s learning and thinking development.
These two books shoot down the importance of the role played by computers and the internet on learning. As I mentioned in my previous blog entry, these books cite scientific research that show that children who read few books but are prolific in computer and internet use have difficulty in understanding complex ideas and concepts. The key problem is computers encourage shallow reading – the way we “scan” sentences instead of reading every word in a sentence. Shallow reading discourages us to think deeply and to internalize information, so people who shallow read often fail to see and appreciate the overall picture or concept.
Moreover, research have shown surprisingly that schools equipped with computers fail to show any improvement in the children’s grades. In other words, there was no difference in school grades before and after the school adopted heavily in computer and internet use.
Another important detriment to computer and internet use is they are a distraction to learning. Reading a text with hyperlinks encourage us to leave the page we are reading to another page which may instead lead us to another page and so on. The computer screen is rarely just shows plain text. Instead, it has text and picture links and even animation that distracts us from reading and thinking deeply. It is as though we are reading a book while trying to listen in to someone’s conversation at the next table.
Computers aid in a child’s education. It is a useful tool, but it does not replace the importance of printed books and physical, hands-on approach to handling real, physical objects. A child needs to develop the effort and focus needed to understand the text. In addition, proficiency in reading printed books encourage a child to develop self-learning skills required later in life.
It has been my experience that university students have poor self-learning skills. When students are faced with a difficult problem, they often become stumped without someone’s help.
Our university students are not self-reliant learners. Even when these students are given books that contain the solution they need, they still fail to understand the information. This disorder is very frustrating to me as a lecturer because I cannot count on books to help my students. I have to explain and teach my students one-on-one. Asking them to read books is of little help. It is not so much that they are lazy to read; the sad truth is they just cannot understand what they have read.
There appears some mental block. The students read, and they understand the individual words – but, for some odd reason, they do not know what the whole sentence means.
There have been some suggestions that playing computer games teaches children decision-making, management, and about moral issues. However, as warned by Mark Bauerlein, there is no scientific evidence of this occurring.
Consequently, computers such as iPad, though useful, must be introduced to our children with great care. These tools, like iPad, can discourage our children from reading books. Our children become hooked more to what is on the computer screen than what a printed book has to show. When this imbalance happens, we should be very alarmed.
Before I end, I encourage parents to observe their children when they read a book and when they watching TV or playing the iPad. Any difference? Below I show the difference for my son, Zachary. One photo shows a happy child who is enjoys learning from a book and another a passive, almost in a drugged-state, “learning” through the TV. Which do you prefer? I know which I would like my son to be…