The chief result is education’s insistence upon immediacy that sacrifices substance and depth. In other words, schools are looking for a quick solution that imparts knowledge with little effort. Educational leaders are extolling the virtues of technology, claiming that equipping students with electronic tools will increase learning. Teachers are expected and sometimes required to use smart boards, power point, e-books and other technological means that will presumably “reach” students. Such action threatens academic achievement because it emphasizes the conduit at the expense of content.
Don’t get me wrong. Anyone who criticizes technology (or money) has never been without it. Technology is a marvelous tool. It’s almost as fun as it is useful. I made fun of Facebook (“Last night, ate at McDonald’s; right now I’m feeding my dog; in fifteen minutes I leave for work”) until I saw how satisfying it was to catch up with old friends. Now I have more Facebook friends than I could ever catch up with, though I solemnly swear that I will never write to tell any of them that I just swatted a fly.
Yes, technology has affected teaching and learning in many positive ways, but has also negated much that is valuable. Anybody who observes students using technology can see that it is often a distraction from the hard work of learning. Despite its bells and whistles, or perhaps because of them, it has rendered students incapable of quietly communing with knowledge. Whether a student is studying history or an automotive manual, a measure of quiet contemplation is necessary, but technology doesn’t foster or even permit quiet contemplation. It is always overly visual and rapid. No wonder students like it. No wonder educators think students are being “reached.” They are being reached alright, but by the visual, sensory overload, not the content.
Recently two famous people repeated the mantra that technology will get us to the Promised Land. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education, in an article titled “A Digital Promise to Our Nation’s Children,” claimed that equipping every public school student with electronic tools would vastly improve learning in the U.S. That notion didn’t work out so well a few years ago in Cobb County when a school superintendent proposed that Cobb students be provided laptop computers. Our techno-savvy community rejected the idea.
In a similar article titled “The Steve Jobs Model for Education Reform,” media mogul Rupert Murdock argued that we must “use technology to force the education system to meet the needs of the individual student.” He added that old-fashioned textbooks “are outdated the moment they are printed.” One hopes that Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Adam Smith are not offended. Jefferson’s many thoughtful essays, Madison’s Federalist Papers, and Adam Smith’s celebration of capitalism (The Wealth of Nations) demand more than dancing images. They demand that a student quietly commune with the ideas they present.
Digital technology has unquestionably transformed business, finance, and manufacturing. It has aided schools in record keeping and many other non-academic functions. One would be hard pressed, however, to show that technology itself has enhanced actual learning. Putting computers and e-books in front of an unwilling student is no more effective than Lincoln and his log or his fireplace.
One example of technological overreach is the teaching of speech online. A student in a local college recently came to me for help with an online speech class assignment. When I asked her how one could learn to give speeches online instead of in front of a group, she replied that she was allowed to tape herself giving her speeches at home and then email them to her professor. So much for learning the dynamics of actually speaking in front of breathing human beings.
Physicist Jonathan Katz, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is highly critical of education’s wrongheaded technology use. Taking exception to Secretary Duncan and Murdock, Katz claims that neither of them understands the role of technology in education: “A well-thought-out textbook or a live classroom discussion does a much better job of conveying understanding than anything that can be done with technology,” he writes. Katz is a science educator as well as the father of five.
A 14-year-old boy can help create a child, but that doesn’t mean he should. Technology can perform phenomenal tasks, but that doesn’t mean we should employ it for every endeavor. Education’s so-called “Digital Promise” will never deliver. It’s too non-human.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher and former state legislator.