The Realities of Our Digital World

Distracted Mind coverThis review as a PDF file is available: download the review.

A review of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen

by Dr. Gary L. Ackerman | @garyackermanphd

Those familiar with the research on the effects of digital devices in humans (as individuals and as groups) will recognize Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, the authors of The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World. Both have contributed to the scientific, professional, and popular literature and media in the field. This book makes a significant contribution to that literature, and it is a work that blurs the boundaries within that literature. The argument is grounded in theory and supported by reference to the scientific research, while it both informs educational practitioners and analyzes products and practices marketed to improve brain health.

When they first evolved, our brains (the feature that differentiates us from other animals) were threatened by jaguars hiding in wait (a character Gazzaley and Rosen introduce to illustrate the nature of our natural environment). Those same brains, and their tendency to perceive and attend to certain aspects of the environment now live in an environment not generally inhabited by jaguars but filled with smartphones and information technology networks. In the prologue, Gazzaley and Rosen note, “It is clear that our interruptive technologies are only going to become more effective in drawing our attention away from important aspect of life… (p. xiii).  From this pessimistic stance towards our devices, Gazzaley and Rosen proceed.

Distracted Minds Explained

Cognition is a goal-oriented activity; we seek to perceive and make sense of information in the environment to make decisions so we achieve our goals. Both internal and external factors distract us and interrupt us from this activity. Digital devices provide “enticing sounds, compelling visuals, and insistent vibrations that tug at our attention while our brains attempt to juggle multiple streams of competing information” (p. 10). As creatures who depend on information and whose brains evolved to understand and share information, the rich information sources we carry in our pockets are both an opportunity and a challenge.

Despite our knowledge that multitasking interferes with performance (we all know that texting while driving can be very dangerous), we continue to allow our devices to distract us. That behavior can be explained by marginal value theory (MVT), which was originally elucidated by biologist Eric Charnov in the 1970’s. Marginal value theory explains the behavior of animals who forage patchy food sources; it also appears to explain humans’ foraging for information on our digital devices.

Marginal value theory posits there is an optimal time that should be spent at a source of food or information. Leaving a source too early results in leaving benefits “ungathered,” while leaving too late results in diminished returns. Once a resource has been depleted (the food is gone or the information is gathered), then one benefits from moving on to another source. Successfully navigating the environment requires a forager negotiate sources and make judgements about the value of separate sources and the time needed to move from one to another. Our digital devices change those dynamics as we carry effectively infinite sources of information and the transit time from one to another is nearly instantaneous as we tap and click from app to web to email to social media.

For about 100 pages (a little less than half of the book), the authors explain how digital technologies interfere with:

  • our ability to select what is sufficiently important to hold our attention;
  • our ability to hold information in our working memory (both the amount of information we can process and the fidelity of our memories);
  • our ability to accomplish goals.

Gazzaley and Rosen do suggest “multitasking” is an inaccurate description of what we do when we try to accomplish multiple goals at once. Human brains are incapable of the parallel processing that allows computers to complete multiple tasks at one time.  Humans task switch; we focus on one task, then focus all of our cognition on another. Each time we switch our attention from one task to another, there is a delay and a loss of fidelity, which explains our decreased performance.

Effects on Humans

Gazzaley and Rosen suggest “three major technology breakthroughs have been monumental games changers in our current lifetime: the Internet, social media, and smartphones” and they define game changers as “technologies that drive our interference-inducing behavior—both internally and externally—and which ultimately aggravate our Distracted Minds” (p. 105). Our digital devices contribute to continuous partial attention and encourage us to task switch which interfere with our capacity to be productive in the work place and successful in academic situations.

In addition to adversely affecting workplace and academic performance, the authors summarize findings that our Distracted Minds can reduce our safety (distracted drivers again being the archetypical example) and have negative effects on our health (digital devices interfere with sleep patterns for example). Further, they summarize findings that the negative effects of the Distracted Mind are exacerbated in diverse populations. For example, Gazzaley and Rosen conclude, “Study after study has indicated that too much technology use, whether it be watching television, going on the Internet, using smartphone or tablet, or playing video games, is associated with deleterious effects on the health of children” (p. 147). They do caution, that this correlation does not mean causation, and that it is unclear if health problems motivate greater media use or if media use leads to health problems.

After reviewing research on the effects of technology on older individuals as well as those with clinical conditions such as ADHD, depression and anxiety, and autism spectrum disorders; Gazzaley and Rosen are led to conclude “that the use of modern technology exacerbates the preexisting challenges these individual face in effectively interacting with their environment” (p. 157).

Our digital devices are determining the information landscape in which we live, and humans are information foragers. Marginal value theory explains much that we observe in Distracted Minds. Boredom is a difficult concept to define and study, but it is clear that boredom is a condition that leads individuals to forage for information online. Gazzaley and Rosen conclude, “We see the impact of boredom is not just to make us switch between information patches; we also seem to have lost the ability to simply do nothing and endure boredom” (p. 170). Humans also feel a compulsion to interact with information on their digital devices, and when devices are not available, we feel increased levels of anxiety. Perhaps the greatest threat to our cognition due to these devices is our lack of metacognition; we appear unable to recognize the negative effects of our devices and we are likely to continue using devices even when we are aware of the interference.

Adapting to Digital Distractions

While the book does lead to the rather distressing conclusion that our digital inventions are affecting our cognitive abilities, Gazzaley and Rosen do end the book with a review of some strategies that seem to reduce the negative impact of our Distracted Minds.

  • By increasing metacognition, thinking about what we are doing and taking steps to minimize the adverse effects of our digital, we can bring greater focus to our work and recover the efficiency and effectiveness of non-distracted cognition.
  • By decreasing accessibility, limiting our access to devices to specific times, we—in effect—increase the time needed to move to new sources of information, thus motivating us to complete tasks before being distracted.
  • By reducing boredom and anxiety, we can increase the probability that we complete tasks before distraction. Of the strategies recommended by Gazzaley and Rosen, this reduction seems to be the most difficult to achieve, but they suggest how both technical and non-technical interventions can reduce these factors.


Until I was an undergraduate student in science education, I had little interest in computers. When I discovered they were tools to help me understand and manage information, I became convinced of their role in my life (and my students’ lives). After 10 years teaching science and math, I started teaching computer courses for middle school students; in the decades since, I have been an educational technologist who advocates for greater use of digital devices and information in our schools.

In recent years, I have been reading the literature on our inability to multitask which has caused me to think educators need to take a more active role in modeling and recommending appropriate use of digital devices. Coincident with reading this book, I was working with students in a device-rich classroom (the students were given laptops under the school’s one-to-one initiative and probably 75% of the student also had a smartphone). The negative effects of these devices of attention and distraction was noticeable, and the better quality of the work done by students who were rarely using their devices for distracting purposes was noticeable.

While I recognize that my observations of the students were informal and in all probability influenced by my reading of this book, my observations seem to support the conclusion that ends the book, “We have been susceptible to distractions and interruptions for our entire lives, but technology’s impact on the Distracted Mind has caused us to overindulge” (p. 238).

Despite the rhetoric of integrating technology into our courses and our assumption that students are engaged with their digital devices, educators must follow the lead of this book and be more sophisticated in how we understand digital devices in classrooms. Changing our behavior to minimize the negative effects on our cognition and supporting our students as they do the same is a new lesson we must teach.

Observations of Narcissist Educators

The label “narcissist” has become relevant in the United States in recent weeks and months. I will avoid comment on current events, but I will observe the concept is useful in understanding the actions of some educators.

For the professional psychologist familiar with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder has a very specific meaning and is made only when certain criteria are met. For the layperson, the label narcissist can be applied much more liberally. In both cases, however, one who is a narcissist has an elevated sense of self-worth and importance which is manifest in several characteristics; we recognize a narcissist as one who:

  • Expects constant attention and validation;
  • Expects special attention and recognition;
  • Is arrogant;
  • Believes himself or herself to be beyond criticism;
  • Lacks empathy.

These are all variable personality characteristics, and depending on a range of factors everyone demonstrates these on occasion. When we recognize these characteristics are displayed frequently and consistently, an individual earns the label “narcissist” by laypeople. When the antisocial behaviors demonstrated by the narcissist exceed normal limits and adversely affect relationships, a professional may apply the diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

The association between self-esteem, narcissism and the teaching profession is interesting. In general, teachers need greater than normal self-esteem; this allows us to interact with students, colleagues, parents, and other stakeholders as we do. The current thinking surrounding narcissism suggests that it arises from excessively weak self-esteem; the elevated sense of self-worth is an unconscious and misguided attempt to strengthen one’s sense of self. Differentiating one with a strong self-esteem who is having an extreme day and a narcissist can be difficult.

At several times during my almost 30 years in education, I have found myself working for narcissistic leaders and working with narcissistic teachers. My experience and the reading that helped me understand those people led me to the observations described here. Look for these actions or reactions to identify the narcissist in your midst.

Ex officio authority

Educators are in positions of authority. Teachers plan how students will spend hours, days, weeks, and school years. Administrators have even greater authority, as their decisions affect teachers’ careers and children’s (and their family’s) lives in important and permanent ways.

On occasion, every educator uses his or her authority to justify decisions. When educators are transparent and admit they are using authority and the rationale for it, students usually understand. Students will often comply with the use of authority to mediate conflicts, give direction to groups that need it, and maintain order. The teacher who decides “Jimmy will pitch this inning and Sally will pitch next inning” is using authority to stop the argument and allow students to play in the few minutes they have a recess rather than argue. Those educators who take time to explain their rationale to students when using authority have more credibility with students, and they are more likely to follow unexplained authoritarian decisions from those teachers.

Narcissistic educators use the authority of their positions as the default rationale for decisions, and the explanation is simple, “You will do this because I am the teacher (or principal or superintendent or whatever), and I decided it.” There tends to be little recognition of other circumstances, and the unspoken demeanor is “all must defer to and recognize my greater expertise.” Teachers who adopt this stance lose credibility with students, and administrators who adopt this stance towards teachers lose credibility as well.

A corollary to ex officio authority is narcissists’ expectation that all will use his or her formal title. Students refer to me by many names and nicknames (gackerman which is my network user name is frequently used), but if I insisted on being called “Dr. Ackerman,” I would be demonstrating the narcissistic characteristic. If an adult insists other adults refer to him or her with a formal title, then one is most assuredly are naming a narcissist.


Education is a complex endeavor and initiatives, projects, and lessons fail and fail frequently. The reasons are many and diverse and in many cases unpredictable. Most educators are able to recognize those failures as a part of the process of designing and refining their practice. In the jargon of organizational leadership, those educators “own” their role in the failure accept a role in improving further effort.

The narcissistic educator is decidedly Pollyannaish regarding failure; the excessively optimistic stance is demonstrated in several ways. First, failures are denied. Even when there is strong evidence that the individual narcissist was responsible for bad decisions, they will reinterpret the outcomes in a positive manner. Second, others who maintain there was failure are blamed for it and become the targets for future blame.

Third, in the face of persistent calls to recognize failure, the narcissistic educator will commonly feign ownership in a sarcastic manner. One particularly narcissistic administrator for whom I worked was known to respond, “Well, I’m sorry I’m not perfect…” and then walked (actually storming away is a more accurate verb) away when others refused to accept his Pollyannaish interpretation. He missed the point that whoever was challenging him was not seeking perfection, but they were seeking to understand the situation and find which part of the system failed.

Narcissists Flock Together Until They Don’t

“Birds of a feather flock together,” is an adage that applies especially well to narcissistic educators. They tend to form tightly closed cliques and support each other’s sense of self-worth with a style of groupthink that supports the members. These groups have tight boundaries, and the insiders regard outsiders with disdain.

The interesting characteristic of these groups, and the narcissistic individuals who belong, is that they tend to dissolve at a moment’s notice. Most frequently, a disruptive event will trigger the dissolution, and the group seeks to reorganize groups. In many cases, the reorganization is relative to an individual, and the groups are “for” and “against.”

In the 21st century, social media plays a part in this phenomenon. Facebook is full of groups that seek to organize in support or opposition to an individual or a program. The educators who participate in them (frequently covertly) are almost certainty narcissists.

Narcissists Challenge Competence

The narcissistic educator has a decidedly adversarial reaction to competence. Competent professionals tend to be:

  • Stable because they can justify their actions with a well-articulated rationale;
  • Insightful because they are constructively critical of themselves and others;
  • Humble because they have internalized their competence;
  • Confident they can adapt to new situations.

The narcissistic educator is likely to perceive these qualities in him or herself, but few others (except for other members of the clique) recognize these characteristics in the narcissist.

Narcissistic educators do identify competence in colleagues and will actively attempt to weaken those individuals, although they will not admit it. A narcissistic administrator will:

  • Disempower competent teachers by assigning others to roles of formal leadership (the competent science teacher will be replaced as the chair person of the curriculum committee, for example);
  • Diffuse competent teachers by separating them in time and place (interdisciplinary teams of competent teachers will be broken up);
  • Deflect changing the focus of the school away from their areas of competence (the competent literacy teachers will find the school begins math initiatives).

While the changes to disempower, diffuse, and deflect are supported with an independent rationale and justified with Pollyannaish reasoning, these actions are familiar to those who work for narcissistic administrators.

Instructionism Dominates

Teachers who are narcissists rely on lecture and instructionism as their pedagogy. This seems to follow from their elevated sense of self-importance, which contributes to their perception of themselves as the expert with the correct version of the curriculum.

An interesting corollary appears to be the narcissistic teacher’s reliance on a single explanation. When a student asks for clarification, the narcissistic teacher will respond with the same explanation that has been given previously. This is grounded in the assumption that his or her understanding is complete and clear, and that the difficulty in learning must be with the students’ attention or effort or capacity to learn. Teachers with minimal narcissistic tendencies will recognize that different individuals may need different explanations and will quickly different approaches and see that as posing no threat to their abilities.

A similar effect appears when a narcissist is a principal (or other administrator). The narcissistic administrator becomes a strong advocate for a single approach to teaching (typically method of instruction, less frequently a student-centered approach); regardless of the nature of the method, the administrator imposes it and prescribes how it is to be implemented.

Excessive Demands on Others

Schools cannot operate without the work of support staff, and this includes both licensed professionals such as librarians, technology specialists, art and physical education teachers, as well as unlicensed professionals, including janitorial and secretarial staff, computer technicians, and others. The narcissistic teacher keeps students late, expects them to miss other classes (especially classes like art and physical education—in an much earlier version of this essay, I included shop teachers, but they are exceedingly and distressingly rare today). All narcissistic educators expect support staff to immediately attend to their needs regardless of the other demands.

Reactions of Convenience

Another corollary to ex officio authority is a seemingly random reaction to proposed changes in pedagogy. All educators are familiar with the endless series of new teaching methods that are advocated by leaders. While we find it tiresome, most educators are willing to try new practices (within reason) if they feel supported and if they feel they are empowered to assess the new practices. Teachers will formally (and informally) apply the test “Is it helping students?” to judge new practices. When teachers are convinced about the value, they are generally quite flexible and accommodating to new ideas.

Compared to other educators, who exercise precaution and quickly adopt new practices that are reasonable, narcissistic educators adopt a rationale of convenience when deciding how to react. As a result, they (paradoxically) tend to both adopt new practices more quickly than colleagues and they tend to show more inertia than others.

Narcissistic educators tend to adopt new practices with little reflection or evaluation. This appears to be done with the desire to be perceived as “on the cutting edge,” and they are more likely to adopt these methods if it will help disempower, diffuse, or deflect competence. The administrator who attends a conference and returns having spoken with a vendor, thus “discovering” the next great curriculum initiative of the school is a narcissist. Narcissistic educators appear to be easily swayed by the self-serving research done by vendors.

The narcissistic educator will remain pedagogically unchanged in the face of reason and evidence that their practice is flawed. In recent decades, a growing body of research has supported “student-centered” practice in which students’ previous experience is an important factor in determining instruction and students are given an active role in deciding some detail of curriculum. Narcissistic educators will frequently listen to the reasoning for adopting the practices, and then conclude, “Well, I want my students to do well, so I really am ‘student-centered.’” This is an example of how the narcissistic educator regards his or her own work with a Pollyannaish perspective. They are very positive about their work, regardless of the true experience for students.


The narcissism is damaging to the cultures we need within school communities to promote out diverse student populations to become the flexible and innovative thinkers that they need to become and that our society desperately needs. I hope this conclusion has been established in my brief observations of this subpopulation of educators.

The question, “How do I respond if I find a narcissistic educator?” is easily answered: “Leave.” What leaving looks like depends on many factors, but narcissists prevent teaching and learning, isolate yourself from those individuals, but if they do not leave (voluntarily or forcibly), then you must.


A Brief Field Guide to Educational Adjectives

Perhaps it is the many advertisements that have found there way through my spam filter recently. Perhaps it is that I have been reading (actually browsing) equal amounts of vendor-created content in trade magazines and peer-reviewed book chapters and articles from academic authors. Regardless of the origins, it is coming clear to me that there are three terms that seem to be synonymous to some writers, but clearly differentiated to others.

As the terms (student-centered, differentiated, individualized) have important implications for classroom practices and the nature of students’ learning experiences, this is my attempt to introduce some dimensions to define and differentiate these terms.

It must be recognized that the three terms have been introduced in recent years to encourage educators to recognize that students are different; therefore different learning objectives and different rates of progress through the curriculum are appropriate for different students. In general, we can recognize that the pace at which a student works through the curriculum can be determined by the student or by the teacher. Also the learning outcomes may be different for different students.

Together, these two dimensions lead to four types of instruction:

  • Teacher controlled pace and common objectives for all students can be accurately labeled as instructionist education. In this model (familiar to by schooling in the 1970’s and to my children in the 2000’s) teachers decide what is taught, when it is taught, and all of the students either keep up or fall behind.
  • Teacher controlled pace but student specific objectives are commonly called differentiated instruction. What is taught to different students (and how it is assessed) may be different for different students, but the teacher is the primary evaluator and judge of when to proceed to the next topics.
  • In classrooms where the students progress through the curriculum at their own pace is individualized instruction; the current interest in competency-based education and the mastery learning of previous generations are examples of this model.
  • Finally, in those classrooms in which students play an active role in defining what is to be studied, how it will be assessed, and when to move on to the next topic; we can properly label the curriculum student-centered.

While there are other relevant dimensions of teaching and learning, these terms seem to be defined through these two dimensions. Clearly, as well, there are situations in which each of these are appropriate (or inappropriate). In my experience, good teachers understand these differences and use the correct model for the purpose. Further, good teachers will ensure students have the opportunity to experience each during each course they complete.

(c) 2016 Dr. Gary L. Ackerman

Thoughts on Born Digital #borndigital

cover of Born Digital
Born Digital

In 2008, John Palfrey and Urs Gasser wrote the first edition of Born Digital. It was one of several books to appear at the time that focused on the nature of “digital generations.” The timing of those books was reasonable as the generations who had never known life without digital tools and information had matured to the point where they could be reasonably studied, and the research had matured to the point where generalizations were clearly supported.

In the time since the first edition of this book, the genre has been less active, The Revised and Expanded edition of Born Digital: How Children Grow Up in a Digital Age revives the genre and demonstrates the transition to life in the digital world is incomplete. It should be added to the reading list of any teacher, school administrator, parent, or other individual who need a lens to understand young people’s use of digital tools and information.

Contents of the Book

The organization of the book is familiar and it is very effective for the purpose. Palfrey and Gasser list 10 trends that are affecting young people (and all others) who live a digital life:

  • Identities- The fact that our identities are becoming more public, thus more permanent, despite that fact one can try out new identities with relative anonymity online;
  • Dossiers- The existence of a large collection of digital documents linked to us, and the fact that no individual controls his or her digital dossier;
  • Protections- Of our privacy and our data;
  • Safety- From ourselves (e.g. sexting), from others (e.g. cyberbullying), and information (e.g. pornography, violence, and extreme views);
  • Creators- Which focuses on social media and the many other online spaces where communities form;
  • Navigators- An essential capacity in the landscape of effectively infinite information;
  • Aggressors- A characteristic that is troubling, especially in light of the continued terrorist activity;
  • Learners- Which recognizes the strong and active effects of digital information on schooling;
  • Activists- Which describes young people’s continued concern about social, environmental, and political issues.

It is interesting to compare this list to the 2008 edition of the book. Previous chapters entitled “Overload” and “Quality” have converged into the current chapter “Navigators,” which demonstrates how issues and strategies converge in the digital world. It is also notable also that Palfrey and Gasser have illustrated these trends with examples and evidence that has emerged since the original version, which demonstrates these issues are both more deeply embedded in culture and continuously evolving.

The previous chapter on “Piracy” has been removed. It appears to gloom-and-doom predictions from the recording industry have not become reality. Based on the number of students’ computers I see which have clients for music streaming services installed, I assume digital generations have abandoned piracy as they have adopted other methods of accessing media that have emerged and been monetized by publishers. It is ironic, however, that I noticed “Piracy” was missing in the same week there was much fervor on social media over a speech, which contained several plagiarized sections.

As a reader, I hope for two outcomes when I reach the end of a book; I hope to have answers or questions. Palfrey and Gasser provide neither, but given the evolving nature of the topic, I am not sure it is reasonable to hope for either.

A valued colleague used to ask for “helicopter views.” She wanted a brief summary of the problems and issues relevant to a topic, so she could understand what she was observing and predict the problems she might encounter. This is what readers of this book will get. In effect, Palfey and Gasser give us a view of the landscape of digital media, and we more completely explain the patterns we observe and more accurately predict the challenges of living in the digital world as a result of their work.

What is Stable?

Palfrey and Gasser end both editions of this book with a chapter entitled “Synthesis,” which comprises an email conversation between the two. The conversation occurred after the book was completed and it demonstrates the dynamic nature of the issues, and the issues they believe are most pressing.

In this edition, the question, “What is stable?” is posed in “Synthesis.” This is an excellent question as there are differences in the contents of the 2008 and 2016 versions of the book, but there are also similarities. By reflecting on what is stable, we can come to clearer understanding of life in the digital world.

My answer is that “quantum and irreversible change” is a stable part of digital life. Consider “Piracy,” the removed chapter. In 2008, young people were making and sharing copies of files (especially music) in ways that violated copyrights. Their behavior changed, and it illustrates both the quantum and irreversible nature of the changes we see.

The pattern I have observed in students’ music listening habits explains why “Piracy” is no longer an issue (hence its absence from this book), and supports the prediction it will never return. For several years, I observed students listening to iPod’s and other .mp3 players. They managed large libraries of pirated files or they made significant investments in digital files. In this step, they had taken the quantum change of managing music as bytes of data rather than bits of physical media. They never returned to the habit of purchasing music as physical media, thus “record” stores have largely disappeared.

It is unusual to see students today managing libraries of media. Most have adopted music streaming services. They have a client installed on their computers and digital devices, and connect to a service that they pay for or that is supported with advertisements. These youngsters show very little interest in changing their music habits; streaming music services have permanently become their preferred method of consuming music, and it will dominate until it too is replaced. (It is interesting that they have returned to the pattern of music consumption familiar to my age peers and me—we listened to the radio and listened to the music a person selected for us. Digital youth listen to the music an algorithm selects for them.)


It is time to stop using the adjective “digital” to describe generations. All generations exist in a digital world, and adults (those of us who lived through adolescence before computers are on our desks and in our pockets) are as affected by digital tools and digital media as younger generations are.

While is may be no longer necessary to differentiate digital generations, this book illustrates the characteristics of youth and the realities of digital fie that they must negotiate are challenging and permanent. Reading this book will leave those of us who care about young people and the world we share with them better prepared to understand the nature of that world.

Everything has Changed: Thoughts on Education and Social Media

cover of Education and Social Media

Greenhow, C., Sonnevend, J., & Agur, C. (Eds.). (2016). Education and social media: Toward a digital future. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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When new technologies—information technologies—emerge, educators have a very predictable response: They reject it. This is, of course, a quite rational response:

  • Clayton Christensen is well known for describing disruptive technologies and the rejection expressed by those whose entire work life (and even world view) is deeply embedded in the “old” technology.
  • New technologies are sometimes adopted first by marginalized populations, or for unsavory purposes.
  • Educators are also quick to adopt the “precautionary principle;” thus they reason, “Until we are sure this new technology is best, we will continue with what we have been doing.”

In the 21st century, social media has followed the narrative implicit in the reasonable rejection of new emerging technology. When I talk with educators (either in K-12 or in community colleges) about social media, I can predict their responses:

  • “What do I have to blog/ tweet about?” (“Um… homework assignments… resources for your students… interesting connections to your curriculum… happenings in your classroom—just be careful about FERPA… games… resources for parents… book reviews…. If you are teaching, you have plenty to share.”)
  • “I don’t want students to find me outside of school.” (“Yeah, that is a problem… have two accounts… one for your professional life that students connect to… and another for your private life.” This does point to the problems of identity in the social media world, but that is a topic for another time.)
  • “It is just silly stuff on those sites.” (Much of it is, but many of your colleagues are creating a vibrant community in the “twitter/ blog/ pintrest-sphere. You should join. It is fun and free and useful. The silly stuff will never be overtaken if thoughtful professionals do not contribute.”)

Some educators have, of course, been more accepting of social media than others (I refer to the vibrant community above), and they share and support one another in both ephemeral and ad hoc and long-standing and consistent communities. This book is an impressive collection of essays prepared by scholars and practitioners who are familiar to and trusted by readers of the professional literature; these authors have taken to the keyboard to share their observations of education in the strange new world. In these essays, they examine and explore the effects of social media on our students, our classrooms, our profession, and our culture.

The 15 essays are organized into three parts: New Opportunities for Education and Social Media, Challenges and Disruptions, and Social Media in the Coming Decade. These do accurately link the essays and these themes do thread through all of the essays, but I am struck by three themes that emerge from the collection.

The Digital Divide Persists

When computers first arrived in schools, they were the domain of “rich, white, males;” access to computers was limited for those who lived in poverty, minorities, and females. While access to devices has increased, we learn in these essays that access to excellent technology-rich curriculum and to the educational benefits of good and well-used technologies are not as widespread as devices are. We see examples throughout that not all screen time is the same, and purposeful planning remains a key aspect of teaching.

Further complicating the digital divide for scholars and practitioners in the United States are the realities of the digital divide on a global scale. We learn how India is working to increase access to information technology and we learn about the role that University of the People is playing to provide access to global communities. We see that these efforts matter to those of us who live geographically distant, but culturally (and economically and politically) close, to those populations.

We Have Much to Learn from Others

Educators’ reluctance to adopt social media means we have some catching up to do if we hope to become leaders in the field of social media in society. We can learn from organizations such as the BBC who has negotiated the role of social media in modern journalism, and they are taking an active role in supporting journalists learn to consume and use social media in a responsible and ethical manner. We also have a corpus of educators whose work to support their students, their colleagues, and themselves exists and they are open to new members, and they have much to teach those willing to learn.

It is common knowledge (actually we learn in this collection that it is a common myth) that youngsters are too willing to share information online. When we look more closely at what youngsters do online, especially in situations where we play an active role in helping them understand the issues and we take an active role in modeling responsible online activity, we find they are much more responsible and private that the myth leads us to believe. We have much to learn from our students.

Social Media is Challenging Much that We Believe

Social media appears to be placing access to information and learning communities squarely on the desks (and in the laps and in the pockets) of our students, and they are finding friends and interests that are leading to active and sustained informal learning. The reality of this “hanging-out and “geeking-out” does seem to pose a serious challenge to the intense focus on standards and outcomes that focus so much interest in classrooms. Standards and outcomes place a rigid external locus of control on education; the message is, “students shall learn what outsiders determine.” (It is frustrating to me that educators have even giving this locus of control over to those even further removed from the classroom, but that also is a topic for another day.) With social media, the message students are giving us is, “I have found a topic that interests me, and a community that values me. I will be an active learner there.”

Other social structures, like copyrights and the accreditation of schools, are also loosing relevance in the landscape of social media. Actually, that last sentence is inaccurate. Accreditation, which is the method whereby we evaluate the degree to which an institution is prepared to do the work of educating its students, and copyright, which is the method whereby we ensure those who create intellectual property are financially rewarded, are still very relevant, but how these were instantiated in print-dominated culture are no longer meeting the needs of creators and consumers of knowledge.


The best way to evaluate research or writing or any other cognitive activity is by reflecting on questions you have when you leave the work. The works that leave the most interesting questions are the most valuable.

After reading these essays, I have no clear questions. For me, the problems are sufficiently cloudy that I am not sure what questions to ask, but the problems are coming clear. Just research problems support problem setting and question framing, the problems emerging form these essays will set and frame important questions for those who seek deeper understanding of education for the digital future.

Teaching in Information Abundance. Social media provides access to any information; facts, procedures, and algorithms are available to any individual with access to a network connect. Remembering and learning how to access such information in the pre-Internet days allowed me to develop sufficient expertise to be a very good (according to my evaluations) biology student in college. My teachers were experts at dispensing to me the knowledge and skill needed to succeed when information was available in print (a limited medium).

These essays help readers understand that the education like I received is a far less value than it was. Education that follows the model of “dispensing information” approaches education as a commodity, and it leaves students unprepared for their futures. Because of social media, the problem of deciding what should comprise the curriculum and what experiences are educative are real and unresolved. It is coming clear that we must prepare our children to deal with far more complex problems and far less stable contexts than our parents did.

Understanding and negotiating curriculum and instruction that prepares students for the landscape of (effectively infinite) information on social media is an unresolved problem.

Shifting Foundations. Clear hierarchical relationships between students and teachers, the role of teacher as isolated expert, stable literacy skills, and well-established authorities as mediators of curriculum are examples of the structures and organizations that have served generations of educators that are being challenged by the landscape of social media.

Continuing to reject social media and the culture it creates seems an untenable position. Educators who hope to move “towards a digital future” as the subtitle of this collection suggests will be finding new footings in this landscape. This also points to the depth of the changes that the renegotiates will occur. In the landscape of abundant information, educators will renegotiate curriculum and instruction. These shifting foundations will cause educators to renegotiate what is means to be educated in this landscape.

Economy of Education. For me, the lynch pin of this collection is Daniel J. H. Greenwood’s “Technology and the Economics of Education.” I am aware of the role of deeper understanding as an asset to both individuals and to society. An individual with greater education tends to have a better life (as measured by what I value). A society with greater education also tends to have a better life (again, I value lower child mortality, long life, greater equity, fewer wars, and education is associated with these characteristics of society). From this perspective, education and the systems that support scholars as they create new knowledge, interpret and share the meaning of that knowledge are as essential as any infrastructure to society.

It appears that our society perceives education as an individual benefit. We encourage youngsters to become educated so they can have a good job, and we burden those who receive greatest education with the greatest debt. It appears, also, that social media is leading us to separate the work of teaching from the work of sustaining and developing knowledge. From this perspective, education is a commodity that can be obtained and transferred for individual good. Greenwood and the other scholars in this collection appear to support the conclusion that education cannot be commoditized.

The digital future these authors appear to be pointing us towards is one with different, but very important, roles for educators and the educated. May we assume responsibility to build that future rather than having it foisted upon us.

(c) 2016 Dr. Gary L. Ackerman

A Rationale for Connected Classrooms


© 2016 Dr. Gary L. Ackerman

Even through the third decade of the 21st century is quickly approaching, and information technology (IT) is deeply embedded in the lives of our students, many educators are still reluctant to find a role for computers (in all of their variations), digital information, and social media in their classrooms. In this post, I argue there is a place for IT in every classroom, and my argument is based on four “E’s.”

Connected classrooms (Ito et al., 2013) have replaced classrooms in which technology is integrated as the best practice in creating technology-rich learning. In connected classrooms, technology infrastructure is leveraged to facilitate interest driven and socially motivated studies. In this post I argue educators can positively affect efficiency, effectiveness, efficacy, and equity through connected classrooms.

Why should I create a connected classroom? Efficiency, Effectiveness, Efficacy, Equity


For generations of students, simple declarative and procedural knowledge was the focus of the curriculum and instruction. While some educators have minimized the importance of this type of knowledge, there is still a place for it in classrooms. (In other places I have argued for “exercises” to be a minority part of classroom work that are done in parallel with “authentic activities.”)

Through technology-mediated instruction (videos, worked examples, games, and other tools), these lessons can be presented with greater efficiency than they can be in traditional teacher-delivered lessons. The efficiency results from the precision with which content can be delivered (only those who need instruction get it) and the just-in-time or just-when-needed nature of this instruction (students can access it any time and as many times as they need it).

In many ways this displaces the teacher as the dispenser of information in the classroom. The advantage, of course, is that teachers can collaborate on identifying, vetting, and curating the collection of technology tools that provide efficient instruction.


A recurring theme in the literature on workforce development is that organizations are faced with unpredictable situations, and they need workers who can adapt to theses changing circumstances. While generations of educators have sought to give students experience applying what they learn to new situations (the dreaded word problems in math is the most common example), this work takes on renewed importance in the 21st century.

IT allows teachers to introduce scaffolding, social learning, and other active learning methods so that students find greater connection and relevance to the ideas they study. Through these strategies, the lessons are more effectively learned, so students are more likely to be aware of what they know as well as how and when to use it to solve new problems.


The purpose of school is to prepare students to fully participate in a culture’s economic, political, and social life. This is education’s strategic goal, and the degree to which an organization achieves its strategic goals.

Today, culture is dominated by digital information and technologies. Giving student experience participating in creating knowledge, evaluating the knowledge created by others, and finding new uses of IT and new types of knowledge, are all aspects of the information technology-rich landscape that were unfamiliar in the landscape of print-based information for which much pedagogy was designed.


It is an unfortunate reality that there remains a digital divide in the United States; disadvantaged students have less access to technology tools, and even if they do have access to the tools, they are more likely to be used for efficient instruction of procedural and declarative knowledge rather than more effective or efficacious purposes.

While efficient instruction may be a reasonable first step in creating connected classrooms, school and technology leaders must take steps to ensure progress continues as all students gain access to curriculum focused around increasing sophisticated and complex problems—problems they identify as relevant—in their schools.



Ito, M., Gutiérrez, K., Livingstone, S., Penuel, B., Rhodes, J., Salen, K,. Schor, J., Sefton-Green, J., Watkins, S. C. (2013). Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: Digital Media and Learning Research Hub.


Being Data-Driven is Nothing to Brag About

Being Data-Driven is Nothing to Brag About

(c) 2016 Dr. Gary L. Ackerman

“Data-driven” has been the mantra of educators for the last generation. This mantra captures the practice of using students’ performance on tests to make instructional decisions. This model can be criticized for several reasons including the dubious reliability and validity of tests, the lack of control over variables, and incomplete and inappropriate analysis. My purpose here, however, is to criticize the “what works” focus that accompanies “data-driven decisions.”

Ostensibly, educators adopt a data-driven stance to create a sense of objectivity; they can reason, “I am taking these actions because, ‘it works’ to improve achievement.” The problem with this approach is that identifying “what works” is a superficial endeavor and it can be used on only very limited circumstances.

While designing physical systems, engineers can apply “what works” methods to improve their systems. Engineers can conceive and plan, build and test, then deploy their systems. At any point in the process they can change definitions of what “it works” means or abandon the project if “it works, but is too expensive” (or if other insurmountable problems arise). Ascertaining “what works” in educational settings is a far less controlled situation. Those who have tried to use others’ lessons plans and found the results disappointing have first-hand experience with this effect.

Understanding “Data-Driven” As a Scientific Endeavor

Humans have created two activities that are data-driven. In basic science, we use data to organize and understand nature so that we can support theories that allow us to predict and explain observations. In applied science, we gather data to understand how well our systems function.

Data-driven approaches to refine systems to build “what works” is the approach used by technologists who work in applied science. Vannevar Bush, a science advisor in President Franklin Roosevelt during and after World War II, placed basic and applied research as opposite ends of a continuum. Basic science was undertaken to make discoveries about the world, and applied science was undertaken to use and control those discoveries to develop tools useful to humans.

If we place data-driven education along this continuum, it must be considered an applied science as it is undertaken to build systems to instruct children. As it is typically undertaken, there is little attempt to understand why or how “it works,” as answering this questions are in the domain in basic science.

Continuum of basic to applied science as proposed by Vannever Bush
Figure 1. Continuum of basic to applied science as proposed by Vannever Bush

This is a very dissatisfying situation for educators (both those who claim to be data-driven and those who make no such claim). Fortunately, we can reconcile that dissatisfaction by recognizing that the basic to applied science continuum does not accurately describe the landscape of education.

Use-Based Research

In 1997, Donald Stokes, a professor of public policy at Princeton University, suggested the understanding that basic researchers seek and the use that applied researchers seek are different dimensions of the same endeavor, so research is not either basic or applied. According to Stokes, the continuum of science should be replaced with the matrix shown in figure 2.

The matrix created by placing the question “Do the researchers seek to develop or refine systems?” along the x-axis and “Do the researchers seek to make new discoveries?” along the y-axis creates four categories into which one can place a science-like activity:

  • Pure research is Bush’s basic research, and it is undertaken to satisfy curiosity, so the researchers are not motivated to create useful systems.
  • Technology development is Bush’s applied research, and researchers seek to develop useful systems, but they do not seek to make generalizations beyond those needed to build their systems.
  • Purposeful hobbies are undertaken for entertainment, and hobbyists are not motivated to share their systems they use or to make discoveries.
  • Use-based research is the label applied to endeavors in which the researchers seek to both develop new systems and make discoveries about the work.
Figure 2. Stokes' matrix of data activities
Figure 2. Stokes’ matrix of data activities

Stokes used the term “Pasteur’s quadrant” to capture the nature of work in the use-based research quadrant. He reasoned Pasteur’s work in microbiology had multiple purposes. As he developed methods of preventing disease (these are the  technologies he developed); Pasteur also sought to discover how and why the technologies worked, thus he established important details of microbial life.

Replacing Data-Driven Decisions

Educators who choose to adopt a more sophisticated approach to using data to drive decisions can adopt use-based research. This will require they begin to approach  data, its collection, and analysis in a more sophisticated manner. These educators will be faced with more work, but it is more interesting and more efficacious than the data-driven methods I typically observe. Use-based research necessitates educators:

  • Begin data projects and analysis with a question. The question cannot be “Which instruction is better?” It must be focused and precise: “Did the students who experienced intervention x perform better on y test?” They must also recognize that these questions can only be answered with large cohorts of students and using statistical methods. Further, these answers (like all answers supported with data) cannot be known with certainty.
  • Seek a theory to explain the results they find in the answers to their questions. While the “data-driven educator” may be satisfied with knowing “what worked,” the educator which uses data as a use-based researcher will seek to elucidate reasons and mechanisms, a theory, for “what worked.” This will leave them better prepared to developed and refine interventions for other settings and cohorts of students. This theory will also allow them to predict other observations that will confirm their theory.
  • Based on their predictions, seek other evidence to support their theories. This evidence cannot be the same measurements. If, for example, we accept the dubious conclusion that SBAC (or PARC tests) measure college and career readiness, then we should be able to devise other measures of career and college readiness and the instruction that affects those tests scores should be observed in other ways as well.
  • Use-based research will also cause educators to become more critical of the measures they use (including those they are mandated to use) and to better understand the reality that we must be active consumers and evaluators of the data that is collected about our students and the methods used to analyze it.


Stokes, D. E. (1997). Pasteur’s quadrant: basic science and technological innovation. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press.

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Being Data Driven is Nothing to Brag About