Learning in the Information Age

August 1, 2007
Cathy Davidson

Cathy Davidson

Whether you graduated from Duke in 1956 or 1996, you probably use different forms of media in your life today than you did when you were a student. In the last decade, you've had to master more new devices than you ever dreamed of. Technology is always changing, but, recently, the rate of change is dizzying. New technologies have had an impact on business, economic, social, political, cultural, environmental, agricultural, scientific, medical, artistic, and journalistic practices. In fact, it is hard to imagine many human endeavors that haven't changed drastically in the last two decades.

Except maybe for one—education. Imagine Ichabod Crane, that parody of bad pedagogy, walking into virtually any classroom today. Although he wouldn't know how to turn on the lights (never mind start the computer for the day's PowerPoint), he would know exactly where to stand and what he was supposed to do.

That's a sobering thought, but it might not give one pause if America's educational system was a glorious success. It's not. Our national public education is failing badly. The U.S. currently has a high-school drop-out rate estimated at over thirty percent. That deplorable rate is highest among the poor. But recently the number of dropouts has been rising across all socioeconomic classes and across diverse communities and regions. Boys fare especially badly in secondary education, which is one reason there are significantly more women than men in college today. To put our failure in perspective: The U.S. now ranks seventeenth among industrial nations in educational attainment.

The predominant educational philosophy of our era is euphemistically called "Leave No Child Behind," a pedagogy based on routinized learning where accomplishment is measured by the scores kids achieve on standardized tests. In most states, schools with poor test scores face mandatory funding cuts. Teachers, already underpaid and overworked, are forced to teach for success on the tests, not for knowledge or creative thinking. Teachers feel as demoralized as students. We face a crisis in finding talented young people willing to enter the teaching profession—and willing to stay.

Radical cutbacks to education certainly contribute to the catastrophe. In some states, for example, soaring costs for new prisons are paid out of the same pot of tax money as public education. What kind of tradeoff is that? The issue isn't just spending, but values. In what kind of future do we wish to invest? How much do we want to educate this generation for the future?

Socioeconomic factors play an indisputable role in educational achievement, but we also know that innovative, inspirational teaching can succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds. I am convinced that one reason for the high drop-out rate across all levels of society today is simple boredom. The same six-year-old who customizes his Pokémon game-play with a suite of digital editing tools that would befuddle his parents then sits in class memorizing seemingly meaningless facts. The context of those facts doesn't count. What counts is a score on a test whose purpose is to measure the acquisition of those facts.

The typical student entering college this fall was born in 1989. The official birth date of the desktop computer is 1983; for the Internet it's 1991. That means we are beginning to teach students who do not remember a time before they were online, for whom social life and informal learning are interconnected, who are used to collaboration and networking and multitasking, and who don't just consume media, but customize it. These students bring fascinating new skills to our classrooms as well as an urgent need for critical thinking about the digital world they have inherited and will be shaping. To ignore their skills or their needs is to abdicate our responsibility as teachers.

For the past two years, I have joined with other educators working on the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's new initiative on Digital Media, Learning, and Education. This fall, the MacArthur Foundation will sponsor its first open competition in the U.S., run by a team centered at the John Hope Franklin Center at Duke and the University of California's Humanities Research Institute. We will be seeking innovators who pioneer new models of learning that build upon and enhance the informal learning styles of youth today. We will be looking for teachers who develop the creative, associational, and collaborative cognitive strategies that kids engage in when they play games online. We will be supporting inventive instruction in impoverished communities as well as at progressive and experimental universities. And we hope to support some programs that span those communities, where university faculty and students are working with economically disadvantaged youth, and where each is learning from the other in significant ways.

I hope that this MacArthur initiative will spawn a national movement of concerned citizens who demand a better educational system for our country. We don't have a choice, really. Not when the richest, most powerful nation on the face of the planet ranks seventeenth in educational attainment. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. It would be ironic, and certainly tragic, if the Information Age went down in history as America's Age of Ignorance.