Jaron Lanier wrote an article for the New York Times about the roles technology can play in the classroom, such that technology itself is neither good, nor bad.
However, there is a negative way that technology is used in the classroom and a positive one. To no one’s surprise (who has been following this blog), from Lanier’s perspective, the negative use pushes us toward the loss of personhood of both teachers and students. We get caught up in the algorithms that create the standardized tests that tell us if a student (and by extension, a teacher) is succeeding or failing. We start to teach to the tests. We see computers as the future of education, wanting to put a computer in the hands of each student to guarantee their success. We focus on educating about the information that the technology gives us rather than what we can do with that information.
But what if education is more than information transmission? What if there are important parts of education that cannot be stimulated by a computer or acting like a computer? What if students see themselves as conduits of information rather than thinkers and problem solvers? Lanier is concerned that students are being trained to transfer information from the lecture/book to the test, and I’m not sure I really disagree. He is afraid that we are losing the self-invention of the human mind. We are treating students like computers, not persons. (I’m actually presenting a paper at a conference in a couple weeks that is arguing something similar. The paper is titled “Teaching to Persons, Not Computers”. I’ll probably post it here after the conference in some form.)
Given all these possible negatives of using technology and computers, what could the possible positives be? Lanier talks about how his father was a teacher that used computers with his students to build spaceships. The idea is that this technology gives us access to things that we would have never been able to do before. We can compute things at a ridiculous speed. We can perform tests without leaving the classroom. We can make simple modifications to designs and retest them again quickly with no need for materials. We can connect to information in seconds that would have taken weeks or months to get our hands on. We can communicate with people to get and give immediate feedback on ideas in places and at times this would normally not happen. The difference between this model and the previous one is that we’re using the technology, not being used by it. The technology gives us access to all these additional tools, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that these are tools.
My dad is a carpenter, and a good one at that. You could give him a small set of tools and he could accomplish something significant. My niece is not a carpenter. You could give her every tool in the world, and she still would not accomplish what my dad can do with his small set of tools. The difference is that my dad knows how to use the tools to their fullest potential. My niece would look at the tools and have no idea what to do with them. She’d find something to do with them, but it would probably be a severe misuse of the tools.
The same goes with students and technology. Some teachers don’t know what to do with the tools. They assume that if you give students the tools, they can figure out how to use them without any help. The students do figure out how to use them, but often it is a misuse of the tools. In that situation, both students and teachers recognize that technology gives them access to all kinds of information, so they focus on the information rather than what the information can do. They use the tools to modify other tools rather than using the tools to make something.
Maybe Lanier’s spaceship example is even more applicable. Technology should be used to produce something new. But not a new tool, but rather, something new using the tools that we’re given. Yes, we do need to have an excellent understanding of the tools in order to do that, but we must understand how to use the tools rather than just information about the tools. With the tools, we can create something wonderful. Whether that is a spaceship or a new insight into life that makes one a better human person, those things are what the goal of education should be about.