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Teachers Report Mixed Impact of Digital Media

Teachers say digital tools used both inside the formal classroom setting and outside it in students' personal lives are having a mixed impact on students' academic and social development, according to two surveys released Thursday morning.

For example, many teachers responded that the Internet and digital tools have had an overall positive impact on students' research habits while at the same time hurting students' attention spans, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project that examined the impact of digital media on students' research habits.

Meanwhile, a separate study from Common Sense Media found many teachers believed entertainment media—which includes not only computer-based tools such as social networks and video games, but also music, film, television, and text communication—to be harmful to students' overall academic and social development, while at the same time helping students learn how to find information quickly and manage multiple tasks at the same time.

Somewhat ironically, the report from the Pew Research Center in Washington also found that a sizable majority of teachers believe students need more training in judging the quality of information, which is an area of specialization for Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based youth media watchdog group that, among other services, offers schools a free digital literacy curriculum from its website.

The Pew findings stem from an online survey of more than 2,000 middle and high school teachers whose work relates either to Advanced Placement courses or the National Writing Program, as well as online and face-to-face focus groups held with middle and high school teachers, and some of their students, according to the report.

The surveyed teachers were diverse by geography and subject matter, but were more likely than the average teacher—perhaps by the very nature of Advanced Placement and the National Writing Program—to teach more academically successful students, the Pew report said.

Among those surveyed, more than three-quarters said the overall impact of the Internet and digital search tools on students was "mostly positive," according to the report. But 87 percent said those same technologies are creating a generation of students who have short attention spans, and 64 percent said they're more of an academic distraction than an academic benefit.

Further, while teachers almost universally agreed that the Internet allowed their students access to a wider range of resources than otherwise possible, they were also more likely to rate a range of students' digital research skills as "poor" rather than "excellent." About a third of those teachers called their students' ability to recognize bias in online content "poor," and 43 percent said the same of students' patience and determination in looking for hard-to-find information, the Pew report said.

From its own survey of 700 K-12 teachers across the nation, Common Sense Media found that 71 percent of teachers said entertainment media—which along with Internet- and computer-based media also includes several popular movies, music, and television, which are rarely considered ed-tech tools—has a net negative impact on students' attention spans, according to its report.

Further, nearly three-in-five teachers said they felt use of that media has hurt students' communication skills, both in terms of writing and in terms of face-to-face communication, the Common Sense Media report said.

Surveyed teachers were selected, according to the report, by a combination of randomly chosen addresses and telephone numbers in a method meant to replicate national teacher opinions with 95-percent accuracy.

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