The Siren Song of Education Technology

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In the world of education, there are many temptations that would lure us to our destruction, and none greater than the siren song of education technology. The computer is, of course, only one form of education technology, and education technology is anything but new.

Those of us educated in the 60s and 70s will remember the mimeograph machine, which spat out pages of blue type the teacher then handed to her students. Some of us still remember holding the fresh sheets of paper to our noses for the unique and pleasant smell of the ink. And some of us can still hear the distinctive sound of the film projector, rattling as it threw up on the screen some poorly animated attempt to inculcate a bit of knowledge or impart some important principle.

As Neil Postman has pointed out, even writing is a technology. In his book Technopoly, he recounts Plato’s story of Thamus, King of Egypt, who was said to have once entertained the god Theuth, the inventor of many things. Theuth exhibited his many inventions to Thamus, but his proudest invention was that of writing, which, Theuth claimed, would improve both wisdom and memory.

But Thamus responds to Theuth, saying:

You, who are the father of writing, have out of fondness for your offspring attributed to it quite the opposite of its real function. Those who acquire it will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of by their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: They will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

In this older, oral culture, wisdom was upheld and informed by unaided memory. It is not recorded what Thamus (who spoke for and against each of Theuth’s other inventions) may have said in its favor. There is obviously much to say in favor of writing, but we cannot but admit that Thamus was wise in seeing the costs of the new technology.

Every technology has both its benefits and its characteristic costs, and before we can make intelligent decisions about computers in the classroom, we need to know both.

We all know what the benefits of education technology are … or do we? In practical fact, education technology has become a fad with many schools. Some want it only because it is the newest thing―the educational equivalent of a fashion accessory.

One of the problems in the discussion of education technology is not just that we do not know the reasons why educational technology might not be a good idea—we have a hard time even saying why we want it in the first place.

But what are the proposed educational benefits of education of technology? Larry Cuban, author of Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, delineates three distinct goals for education technology: The first is to “make schools more efficient and productive than they currently are”; the second is to “transform teaching and learning into an engaging and active process connected to real life”; and the third is to “prepare the current generation of young people for the future workplace.”

It is easy to see how administrators could use computers for more efficient record-keeping, how teachers could use them to more easily keep track of grades, and how students could conduct research more efficiently. Many schools already do this.

But it is more problematic than most people think for schools to use technology to prepare students for the future workforce. For one thing, because of bureaucratic red tape, elementary and secondary schools are themselves seldom outifitted or even familiar with the most recent technology. In addition, schools have shown themselves to be poor prophets when it comes to predicting what will be needed in the economy of the future. The students of my generation who were taught Fortran and Pascal can tell you how that came in handy when they graduated and discovered that those computer languages were already on their way out. Seymour Pepert once called the computer the “Proteus of machines”: He can foretell the future, but will change his shape to avoid having to.

And as for “transforming teaching and learning,” how would computers do this? In fact, the goal of education technology in the classroom is about as hostile to traditional education as it is possible to be. Cuban, a progressive educator himself, laments that technology has not changed the teacher’s role in the classroom. Cuban is one of many promoters of technology who want to move teachers out of their traditional role of imparting knowledge, understanding, and wisdom to being mere “coaches.”

Both Cuban and Postman understand that the computer has an agenda and that it is not friendly to the traditional conception of the classroom. Cuban is disappointed that it has not weakened the role of the teacher and Postman is concerned that it will.

“What we need to consider about the computer has nothing to do with its efficiency as a teaching tool,” says Postman. “We need to know in what ways it is altering our conception of learning, and how in conjunction with television, it undermines the old idea of school.” Postman is writing these words in 1993, and so perhaps he would now have more concern with technologies like the Internet.

Classical educators needn’t be conflicted about the use of computers as tools that can enable more efficient administration, and they can have a limited comfort level with a limited use in preparing students for the workplace, but they should be positively alarmed by any technology that presumes to replace them.

Schools need to think through what education technology can and cannot do for them, and in the process of determining what it can do for them, they need to realistically assess what it can do to them. In this regard, classical educators especially should be concerned with a technology that aspires to disarm them from doing the very thing their students need them to do: make sense of their world.

One of the most important things we should expect education to do is to order our experience. The world has an inherent structure―not just the natural world, but the larger reality within which we live, think, decide, and feel. There is a natural reality we can apprehend through mathematics and the sciences, and there is also an ontological reality which we apprehend through literature and philosophy.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined the wise man as that man who “orders things rightly.” It is in showing students how to do this that we make them wise. Ordering reality is an essential part of education, and that job has been helped by the advent of the computer, but it has also been made more difficult. Modern culture does not suffer from a lack of information; it suffers instead from the inability to make sense of too much information.

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The very relation between information and human purpose, says Postman, has been severed:  “[I]nformation appears indiscriminately, directed at no one in particular, in enormous volume and at high speeds, and disconnected from theory, meaning, or purpose.”

These words were written in 1992, before the rise of the Internet, and the mention of only one word is required to show that Postman’s prophecy has been completely fulfilled: Google.

Digital technology holds out to us the promise of power over information, but at the same time threatens to give information power over us.

The computer can help us order reality, but more often it does the opposite―and it is more likely to do the opposite if the teacher is sidelined by a machine. The computer has done a lot to open the floodgates of random information, and very little in the way of ordering and integrating it. When a school simply hands out iPads to its students, it has made it more likely that students will be buried further under the modern avalanche of disordered information, and less likely that they will be able to make sense of a complicated world.

But it is not only the vertical order of truth that the unchecked use of the computer can separate our students from, but the horizontal ordering of time. In his book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, Douglas Rushkoff argues that the new technology has brought about what he calls “presentism.” The digital age not only doesn’t help, but actually militates against many of our stated educational goals, which include teaching a knowledge of the past and how to prepare for the future. It is a “diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now―and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is”:

It’s why the world’s leading search engine is evolving into a live, customized, and predictive flow of data branded “Google Now,” why email is giving way to texting, and why blogs are being superseded by Twitter feeds. It’s why kids in school can no longer follow linear arguments; why narrative structure collapsed into reality TV; and why we can’t engage in meaningful dialogue about last month’s books and music, much less long-term global issues.

When we respond to the siren song of education technology, there are some things we should demand, and among these are that it not cut us off from the past―or the future.

There are two functions of technology in our schools. The first is as a means to teach other things, and the second is as a thing to be taught. The two things we should be most concerned to teach are wisdom and virtue. But the best means to teach these are not computers. The computer can help in a limited role, but it will not do the job for us.

The best education “technology” is the liberal arts: the set of language and math skills that allow us to learn everything else. If we spent half as much time talking about these technologies as we now talk about computers, our students would be a lot better off.


Originally published in The Classical Teacher Winter 2013 edition.

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