A growing chorus of voices argue that the internet is making us dumber. Web-connected laptops, smartphones and videogame consoles have all been cast as distracting brain mushers. But there’s reason to believe some of the newest devices might not erode our minds. In fact, some scientists think they could even make us smarter.
Could the cleaner and more modern interfaces that we see on iPads, iPhones and Android smartphones better suit the way our minds were meant to work?
While doing research for my upcoming technoculture book titled Always On, I posed the question to Muhammet Demirbilek, an assistant professor of educational technology at Suleyman Demirel University, whose findings suggest newer mobile interfaces could foster focus and improve our ability to learn.
“The interface of [the] iPad could work well for us,” Demirbilek told me. “We use our hands instead of a keyboard or mouse, and it fits exactly how we behave and think in real life. In addition, the iPad interface looks easier for us, because it has larger-size text and bigger icons. It is less likely to cause cognitive overload to the user, based on my studies.”
This idea challenges the conclusions of web cynics like Nicholas Carr. In his new book, The Shallows, Carr draws on a plethora of studies that collectively conclude the internet is shattering our focus and rewiring our brains to make us shallower thinkers. However, these arguments may not apply to the newest wave of devices.
Though scientists haven’t had a chance to study the implications of the cleaner and more modern interfaces that we see on iPads, iPhones and Android smartphones, we can draw some inferences from previous studies on computer interface and brain activity.
In 2004, Demirbilek conducted a study on 150 students at the University of Florida to examine the effects of different computer windows interfaces on learning. He compared two interfaces — a tiled-windows interface, in which windows were displayed next to each other in their entirety, versus an overlapping-windows interface, in which windows were laid on top of each other like a spread-out stack of paper.
Inside a computer lab, the participants were split into two groups randomly assigned to work with the tiled-windows interface mode or the overlapping-windows mode. Each mode contained a multimedia learning environment requiring the students to complete certain tasks. Demirbilek measured the students’ disorientation — how likely they were to get lost in a document, and their cognitive load — the total amount of mental activity being taxed in the working memory.
To measure disorientation, each student’s Internet Explorer history file recorded the number of informational “nodes” that were accessed to complete each task — in other words, the number of steps each user took before finishing an activity. For each task, a user was deemed either oriented or completely lost based on the number of nodes accessed.
To measure cognitive load, the students were timed on how long they took to react to different interactions. For instance, in one part of the study, the participants were required to click a button as soon as the background color of a window changed.
After completing his study, Demirbilek found that subjects using the tiled-windows interface were significantly less disoriented than subjects using an overlapping-windows interface. He also found that participants working with overlapping windows were substantially more likely to experience cognitive overload than those working with tiled windows.
In conclusion, students using the tiled-windows interface were able to find specific information more easily and engage with it more deeply, whereas students working with overlapping windows struggled to see how parts of a knowledge base were related, and they often omitted large pieces of information. Students using the tiled-windows interface were able to learn considerably better than those working with overlapping windows.
“The tiled-windows interface treatment provided help to users, enabling them to efficiently communicate with the hypermedia learning environment,” Demirbilek wrote in his research paper.
Demirbilek’s conclusions don’t contradict Carr’s assertions, but they suggest that the gap where information is lost between short-term memory and long term-memory is not due solely to hyperlinking, but also to the disorienting nature of the interface used. Carr is correct that the traditional PC computing environment (such as Windows or Mac OS X), which uses an overlapping-windows interface, is conducive to shallower learning.
However, Carr’s cited studies focus on interfaces that will soon be out-of-date. Newer mobile devices such as the iPhone, iPad and Android smartphones abolish the traditional graphical user interface we’re accustomed to. Gone are the mouse pointer and the mess of windows cluttering our desktop. On these mobile technologies — especially the iPad with its bigger 9.7-inch display — all the emphasis is placed on the content, and each launched app completely takes over the screen. The only pointers are our fingers. And going forward, we can expect future tablet computers competing with the iPad to replicate the single-screen interface.
Additionally, as touchscreen tablet computer users continue to grow, more web developers will feel pressured to scrap the busy website interfaces we’re accustomed to today. The drab, cluttered websites with squint-inducing boxes will be refreshed with large, touchable icons. Demirbilek and I agree that the iPad-driven tablet revolution is poised to improve user orientation and learning.
Of course, the iPad is less than a year old, and it has some work to do. By only displaying one app or one piece of content at a time, the iPad solves one problem while creating another.
A 1999 experiment on windows interfaces conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota found that fourth-grade students using multiple windows were able to answer quiz questions more quickly and score significantly higher than students working with a single window.
In conclusion, they found that multiple windows, displayed in their entirety, assisted in completing tasks where more than one source of information is needed to solve a problem.
The iPad’s single-screen interface reduces elements of distraction and potentially enhances user orientation, but because of the lack of windows, it also eliminates the ability to read information from multiple sources simultaneously on a single screen to complete more complex tasks. This shortcoming is what makes the iPad lacking as a productivity device for doing work. But problems like this can be solved over time with software updates.
And even though the iPad isn’t yet ideal for professionals, that’s just one audience for the device, Demirbilek said. He believes the iPad has already introduced an interface beneficial to learning, especially for children.
“I think that the interface of [the] iPad could work well for young children because it maps onto how kids already do things in their daily life,” he said. “Sweeping things across the screen fits exactly with how very young children behave and think.”
Brian X. Chen is author of a book about the always-connected mobile future titled Always On, publishing spring 2011 by Da Capo (Perseus Books Group).
Fuente: Gadget Lab