Thursday, April 12, 2012

Technology: Friend or Foe

Many folks in the blogosphere have addressed the role of technology in education.  Views on the subject run the gamut and opinions differ for a variety of reasons.   We here at the TU find technology the frequent topic of conversation. And, we talk about its role in more than just education, discussing how and where it has altered the landscape significantly in the last five years.  We've written about the issue a half dozen or so times but it keeps coming around and a recent lunch conversation made another post seem warranted(type "technology" in the search box to the right to take a peek).

Technology is and has always been a creation intended to improve the human condition.  Whether saving effort with labor or making work easier and more productive, it is supposed to help.  Perhaps our development and reliance(some would say unhealthy dependence) on technology is what has allowed us to emerge as such a unique species.  From our earliest attempts with stone, bone, and wood, technology put us in a position to master our world and empowered us to do more things not possible before.  The purpose was to aid humans.  Constant innovation would periodically revolutionize our way of life.   Reshaped agriculture, transportation, communication, medicine among other areas touched almost every aspect of human life.

But we also have a funny way of forgetting the less desirable side of technology.   Once we started with tools and then farming, it likely didn't take long before we were developing things as a means to destroy stuff or people we didn't want around.  That you can usually see coming.  More recently the effects of technology are more subtle but arguably harmful as well.  It is these unintended results that bring the discussions about technology full circle.  Too often new becomes synonymous with better.  In particular those of us who work with young people are keenly aware of how intertwined they become with the newest technologies.  They block out the outside world with earphones and rarely say a simple "hello" while busy staring at the screen of their smartphone. (perhaps this isn't unique to young folks)  These gadgets quickly eradicate basic elements of civility.  Their efforts to "connect" with each other and the world virtually often leave them out of touch.  People are emboldened by perceived anonymity and do and say things they would never actually do or say face to face. Overall I'd say the greatest concern I have is that too much technology can be harmful.  Which bring me to the topic of education. 

Education's relationship with  technology is no different than other areas of society.  What is different is how powerful people embrace it and then take a paternalistic approach to how it ought to be used.  The change from the outside point of view revolves around "we know how to fix schools and we will do it with technology."  As a case in point take a recent post we did on Khan Academy.  The approach here  is using simple online recorded lectures with some included visuals.  The accessibility and ability to repeat and duplicate are great .  They offer tremendous advantages but couldn't a student or teacher just record a lecture?  How can anyone in their right mind think they are better than having an quality teacher?

The answer lies in our love affair with technology.  In the hands of decision-makers, the ideas of group-think do-gooders quickly become misguided and produce a vastly different product than envisioned in the conference or boardroom. In some ways, interacting face to face is the same as online.  In many ways it is not. The economic downturn has led to the laying off of teachers and cutting of valuable programs to save funds; all while funds are used on technology which fails to benefit everyone.  Computers, smartboards and technology that ultimately have a limited shelf life are  purchased.  Sure they are very useful, when their role is understood the right way.  So really technology is neither a friend or a foe, it is the instead how we view it that proves problematic. 

Most teachers are not technophobes(I even stand near the microwave when cooking).  We embrace what helps us do our jobs.  We are also wary of becoming too dependent or reliant on technology.  This is a positive trait.  The "paperless" classroom might not be all it is cracked up to be.  Most good educators realize how technology can help, but know that it can't replace people and relationships in education.  We are not talking about assembling something on a production line.  We are talking about young people.    Tech can be many things but it cannot do what humans do in education.  This dogmatic view of the role technology in our future does a great disservice and ultimately could worsen things in many ways.

Defenders of technology infusion would say "we are not suggesting that at all." But that is happening.   Rather than empower and improve our lives, new technologies often alienate and isolate.  While we have instant access to information, we often fail to internalize the importance of what we learn and how to use these tools.  Leaving it to someone else, say Wikipedia, to set that mindset for us.  If everyone was taught by the same teacher with the same approach it would be fair to say quality would suffer. I read once that getting information off the internet is like drinking from a fire hydrant. Makes sense.  You can get a lot from the internet, mainly information.   The benign marketing of technology that shatters the "one size fits all" school model misses the reality that varied instruction provides a rich environment to learn.

We end up isolated since we carefully self select our networks and thereby restrict views that may differ from our own.  This can be problematic.  Having students who don't learn the same and don't always get along actually provides a real world experience.  Freeing up the teacher and online collaboration sound great but what lies beneath that is less obvious.    Imagine if you will a toddler seated in front of a large screen with the alphabet along with some morals and values are imparted to them from some distant source.  Technology can convey knowledge and content.  But it can't really help teach responsibility, judgement, character, how to treat each other and it doesn't provide any wisdom.  I'd prefer to have my own children learn form a good person as opposed to good technology. 

The simple question is do people learn better using technology or using each other?  The answer is a complex one. Some would seek to produce a study using a true valid measurement to prove this, one that any experienced teacher won't be able to poke full of holes in 30 seconds.  They miss the point.  People learn from other people in so many ways and entertaining the idea that technology is anything but what it started out as, a simple tool would be a huge mistake.  Let's stop all the revolution talk and just try to find ways we can help our young people. As importantly let's be aware that anything we do should never have the potential for doing the opposite.    

Thoughts in closing.
A friend is someone you trust, not something you trust.  
 "Technology accelerates at a relentless pace.  Anything not moving forward, is moving backwards."  This is a quote from a 2013 Lexus Commercial.     I would respond that while it is certain technology can make us faster and able to do more, the one thing technology will never create is more time during the day.  So by doing more aren't we just getting busier?

For demonstration purposes lets just watch this commercial and see if you pick up the potential bad things(hazards)of new technology.

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