Ideas on education, the English language, and the teaching profession.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Tyranny of Technology


ed-student said...

I wish you could have been in my ed-tech class. All of our woes in education were attributed to lack of computers. It's also put into the context of "diversity," because students with "different learning styles" absolutely need to be taught with computers. I agree with your post, obviously, it's funny to see how the progressive-education cult is so obsessed with computers. After listening to that nonsense in ed-school it's amazing to read a common-sense take on the situation... Brilliant!

Scott Walker said...

Oh, "different learning styles," that brings me back. I would say that concept is moral and academic relativism at its very worst. It obscures the very meaning of learning. Then again, it does alleviate that heavy weight of accountability. No one fails, they just learn differently -or more realistically, they learn nothing. You're perceptive to make that connection with technology.

corbusier said...

Back when I was in school, a computer literacy class often meant learning how to program in BASIC or PASCAL, which gave one extremely useful skills sharpening students' sense of logic and using mathematical proofs.

I use computers a lot as an architect, and my knowledge of the all the software was self-taught. One is useless to a firm if one is unable to use his or her brain even if you can browse web sites and send text messages.

It should be pressed upon students that in today's modern world, information is where value lies, and information that is collected,analyzed and packaged into an intelligible form is golden. That, alas, requires a brain.

Melissa B. said...

Enjoyed this week's Carnival submission! I'm running a contest, of sorts. Drop by my blog on Sunday--I'd like to see your humorous side!

Kevin C said...

I get where you're coming from, and I agree that your underlying frustrations and observations about students' behavior with computers are valid, but I just can't get behind your rant because I think it is focused incorrectly.

The first thing I want to point out is the use of the word "technology" to indicate computers and other current, advanced electronic devices. According to the definition of technology (hey look, I didn't even use Wikipedia!), chalkboards, slide rules, and pencils are as much technology as computers and digital projectors.

"That's just nitpicking," you might say. Perhaps, but I don't think so. I bring it up because I want to point out that the current range of electronic devices that you bemoan are just tools. Tools rarely, if ever, have inherent positive or negative value; it is the application of those tools that grant merit or demerit.

The use of computers in the classroom is still relatively new, and I think it's still being vetted in that role. There are going to be mistakes and misjudgments along the way, but I don't think that's a reason to decry the attempts. In my experience, which was only about a decade ago, there were a lot of teachers trying to teach computer usage in an education setting, when those teachers were themselves only, shall we say, "functionally literate" in computer usage. Using Excel to track attendance, sending email, and occasionally looking up a web page doesn't mean you know how to "apply technology" to the learning environment. And yet, that was the extent of the capabilities of most of the "tech savvy" teachers in my high school days.

I agree with you that students are increasingly distracted with Facebook, MySpace, etc.; I'm not sure we can blame the technology, though. The fact is - and this is something I bring up over and over again when discussing the "ills" of technology - we made it this way. Computers didn't dictate the creation of the current distractions that exist; those distractions were made because people wanted them. The desire for instant gratification is very strong in humans, and is accommodated - and practically encouraged - by our society. I mean, it's pretty much the underlying premise of most marketing strategies. If anything, I'd say the computer simply enables access to more types of instant gratification, but I can't agree that the computer has increased the desire. (Slot machines have been around since at least 1895.)

I also agree that "different learning styles" is overused as a phrase, but it's not inherently wrong. It's basically common sense that everyone learns differently, but that talks about different ways of getting meaning across to someone; it shouldn't be used as an excuse for laziness or apathy.

vlorbik said...

good stuff. found you at the carny.
linked this in another of my blogs.

Scott Walker said...

To Kevin:

I appreciate your comment and the effort you put in making your point.

Still, I feel compelled to address some of your objections for the sake of clarity since I think most of them result from overgeneralizing my position on this increasingly important issue in schools.

First, this post was not intended to be a rant. In fact, most of my posts are meant to be critical and formal. I make objections and follow them up with reasoning and evidence. All this follows a thesis. I follow the conventions of formality and avoid writing in first person. I try hard to avoid "ranting". I don't vent with my blog though I can recommend some that do. I try to constructively analyze problems affecting schools today. To start off calling my post a rant betrays an overgeneralization of my argument and belittles my efforts.

As such, you mistakenly think I'm only writing a huge jeremiad against technology and use it as a mere scapegoat for all the problems in education. My points are simple: it's expensive, it's ineffective, and in many cases, counterproductive.

Yes, everything we use that isn't part of our anatomy can be classified as technology. My focus concerns mainly computers and internet. I doubt people are talking about something else when they call for technology in schools. Nevertheless, I'm sorry I didn't make this explicit.

However, I did explicitly state that technology serves as a tool (see sixth paragraph). Hence, I don't mind teachers using computers. However, this tool is a great deal more distracting and expensive than chalkboards and pencils. I have yet to hear a good justification for this expense.

I'm glad we both agree with existence of free will in humanity. Indeed, computers do not create desire; people do. But why bother with the temptation when it isn't necessary (see paragraph 7)?

Kevin C said...

OK, so rant is probably too strong of a word to use when I looked up the definition of the word. To me, however, paragraph 4 lends itself toward that term. In that paragraph, you draw a direct line from technology to obesity, ignorance, and laziness. You once mention parenting decisions in said paragraph, but then quickly revert to technology as the propelling force; I simply cannot agree with that. Without specific evidence, I find this connection specious logic at best. But truthfully, this is not a problem with education; it's a problem with parenting, I think.

I'll grant that perhaps it wasn't your intention, but it's hard not to see this as a "jeremiad" (interesting word, I'd never encountered it before)when you use the title "The Tyranny of Technology" and make references to Voltaire and Newton. It comes across excessively strong, if not a little Luddite after all. Also, in paragraph 5 it appears that you generalize certain behaviors on or with computers to all students and "young people". Perhaps not your intention, but without qualifiers, it's natural to assume the superset.

While I do agree with the basic points you list in your comment (currently it is expensive, it is ineffective, and is sometimes counter-productive), I do not agree that it is because computers and the internet have nothing of value to offer students. I attribute the current lack of value to my belief that there hasn't been enough time and effort put into discovering how these new tools should be used in the education environment. Most of the mentality I've seen (from talking to educators, and working myself in a small private college's IT department) of some educators - but far more often from administrators who don't actually even do the teaching - is a horrific parody of an old standby: "Throw more computers/new software/other random technology at it" without investigating the real value of that move. Any time I have personally witnessed this, which is particularly prevalent and frustrating in small and poor school districts, it is because those educators and administrators do not comprehend the tool they are throwing at the (perceived) problem.

I don't think we disagree on the actual problem; it's in our response that we seem to differ. Whereas your solution seems to be, and I apologize if this is an unfair summation, "Don't do it," mine is to say, "Work harder on finding the right way to do it." And working in the IT industry, I know how long and arduous that process can be. I also know from working with and talking to people in the education realm that no one has any real time to do that; everyone is pretty much stretched to a breaking point. I'll be honest, I don't have a solution, or even a suggestion, for that.

And to clarify a point: I was fully aware of how you used the word "technology", and also that it is the standard usage of it when applied to education. I was trying to point out that pretty much everything that is used in the education process was at some time a new technology that had to find its real value and place in education, and that new technologies like computers and the internet have not done so yet. It's my fault if I didn't make that clear enough.

And if I may opine one last time, I'd like to give my answer to "What do you think students need today to succeed?" I think students need a stronger sense of personal responsibility (quit blaming stuff that goes wrong on everyone and everything else, and carry your own load), and a real belief in the value of an education that comes from rigorous and repeatable demonstration of the advantages of learning. (And I mean something more than a name on a parchment that itself means absolutely nothing more than a chance at making a small measure more income.) The tragedy is that most students that I've interacted with, particularly during the formative early- and mid-teen years, have devalued education itself. I believe that if the students had an actual desire to learn, then any and all distractions would be far less tempting. Right now they seem to want to be distracted from learning.

Scott Walker said...

I'm happy that we're on the same side, Kevin. Like you, I've tried coming up with something to make technology our friend rather than our foe. I think there are some very potent possibilities in -I hate to say it- video games. I think for certain kinds of knowledge, they can make things much more inviting without compromising the material. I owe my passion for the humanities and history in some part to playing Sid Mier games like Civilization, Colonization, and Railroad Tycoon. My wife, who now seeks a CS degree had her love of math start from Treasure Cove games that drill players on arithmetic.

My mind remains open to this possibility of interaction as a supplement to certain subjects, but I have reservations about using this as a crutch which might be inevitable for lazy educators. Right now, that really seems to be the case.

ed-student said...

Outside observers are really not hip to the fact that technology is absolutely becoming a crutch in education. Scott Walker is not arguing against technology, or for it, or whether it’s a tool, or whatever else. Many teachers, if they don’t know the answer to the question of a student, tell the student “look it up on the internet.” This gives some teachers more time to propagandize to their students politically and leaves them free to ignore actual teaching. “We don’t need to teach facts because students can look them up on the internet.”

Case in point, the head of the NEA was on C-span today, a caller asked why his grandson never seemed to learn the basics at school. The NEA guy said that “well, these students have DVD players, and CD players, and so, things have changed….” Huh? “Well the jobs of today are different, so students need different skills.” Okay, what skills? “Cooperation, teamwork, creativity.” In other words, crayola curriculum, new-age pabulum. So, essentially, “our new technological society” is used as an excuse not to teach skills, or content… “anything but knowledge”. This is not about technology per se. This is about how technology dovetails with a seriously misguided movement in education.

Anonymous said...

I thought this was a timely and relevant post -- I am a teacher at a school that values technology, and I am generally pretty proficient at using it, but at the end of the day, technology is only a tool, and in and of itself will accomplish nothing. Give Newton a Texas Instruments calculator, and he could do far more with it than a monkey and a Mac: ultimately, it's the brain using the tool that makes the difference, and without training that brain to think, you have done nothing.

You'll be amused to hear that in a program I took for GATE certification recently, an entire class (that is, the entire course) was devoted to technology, specifically Power Point. I got tired being the only gadfly who asked things like, "Doesn't it take up a lot of time to teach students Power Point when they could be learning math?"

Professor Zero said...

Good post and comments. I am glad someone has explained, or expressed, the emptiness of the "different learning styles" cant, esp. as academic relativism / obscuring the meaning of learning.

On computer literacy, it would be great if that were really what were taught but many people, although addicted to Facebook, actually have really poor skills in this area.

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