Friday, April 1, 2011

Technology is Why Education Must Change

It is fascinating to me how people lived and interacted historically.  I’m reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our BrainsThe Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains” by Nicholas Carr (Kindle version – quotes refer to Kindle locations) and finding the historical perspective he provides on literacy to be very interesting.  From oral only to writing on rocks, wood, wax, clay, papyrus, and paper.  It’s amazing that people only had brain memory and no recorded memory, for so many generations. Even contracts and laws were simply oral agreements.  Fortunately, symbols were developed to enable the representation of what was spoken in a permanent form.  When people first wrote using an alphabet the words all ran together and were not in a grammatically correct order and all reading was originally out loud.  As the technology for writing changed, so too did the capabilities of authors.

“As soon as the introduction of word spaces made writing easier, authors took up pens and began putting their words onto the page themselves, in private. Their works immediately became more personal and more adventurous.”, The Shallows loc. 1149

In general “civilization has assumed its current form as a result of the technologies people have come to use”, loc. 859.  All through history one can find technology driving small then transformative changes, often over hundreds of years.  Furthermore, “observes the political scientist Langdon Winner, ‘it is that technologies are not merely aids to human activity, but also powerful forces acting to reshape that activity and its meaning.’”, loc. 847.  Think about the impact of the Gutenberg movable type printing press on the spread of knowledge, education, etc. – a profound impact of technology on their world and ours.

As technology evolved to provide us with written text, phonographs, photographs, moving pictures, moving pictures with audio, it also gave us imagedigital forms.  Did you know that when phonographs were created people lamented the loss of books thinking “writing” would return to an oral technique but now recorded?  But, “[o]nce information is digitized, the boundaries between media dissolve. We replace our special-purpose tools with an all-purpose tool.”, loc. 1535.

The invention of the general purpose programmable digital machine has forever changed everything to do with literacy and media.  The written word, spoken or sung word, video, pictures, etc. can now all be digitized and stored in a machine to be mashed up and reused or repurposed as we see fit.  This has disrupted the book, newspaper, television, movie, and music industry.  Traditional physical forms are disappearing in years, not decades, let alone millennia.  We face exponential change on an ever shorter timeline.

“With the exception of alphabets and number systems, the Net may well be the single most powerful mind-altering technology that has ever come into general use. At the very least, it’s the most powerful that has come along since the book.”, loc 1991.

Education is a mind-altering “technology”.  It is essentially its purpose.  As people are taught and as they learn, their brain forms new pathways and trims others.  People often write about technology as something that assists, is optional, etc. to support learning and teaching.  You know the saying: “it’s just a tool”.  I think that is a rather shallow view of the power technology brings to everything we do and are.  I think we're kidding ourselves to think that teaching and learning can carry on without being radically changed by technology.  History proves time and again that technology completely changes and disrupts every institution we’ve ever created.

So, as we begin to accept this, how do we ensure that our embrace of technology in education is thoughtful and improves literacy, skills, and knowledge?  Blindly embracing technology has its downside as Carr explains “why young readers are abandoning traditional novels: ‘They don’t read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions are intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them.’”, loc. 1810.  He adds “[w]henever we turn on our computer, we are plunged into an “ecosystem of interruption technologies”, loc. 1582 and “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning”, loc. 1984.  Perhaps this is a ringing bell for us in education to not lose sight of the benefits that traditional literacies provide, such as deep reading.  Students need to be proficient at both rapid scanning and analysis and deep thoughtful learning.  It doesn’t have to be a pendulum swing change.

As e-readers are embraced (I love my iPad’s Kindle and Kobo apps) or even web reading, we need to continue to teach students concentration, focus, and deep reading.  Carr shares that “’[i]f we stop exercising our mental skills,’ writes Doidge, ‘we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead.”, loc. 660 and “the tools we use to write, read, and otherwise manipulate information work on our minds even as our minds work with them—is a central theme of intellectual and cultural history”, loc. 809.  Technology,the tools we use, will effectively “rewire” our brains – we need to be sure that this is done well and to benefit not hinder.

Multitasking (extreme) is a child of the Net but “improving our ability to multitask actually hampers our ability to think deeply and creatively”, loc. 2408 and “[i]ntensive multitaskers are ‘suckers for irrelevancy’”, loc. 2436.  Moreover, “we’re hurried off toward another bit of related information, and then another, and another. iStock_000009165757XSmallThe strip-mining of ‘relevant content’ replaces the slow excavation of meaning”, loc. 2833.  Here is the crux of the challenge for our education system, “[t]he problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion”, loc. 2866.  The author goes into a lot of depth about brain and memory research and what type of learning is necessary to create permanent memories.  He and others conclude that “[t]he Web is a technology of forgetfulness”, loc. 3291.  It is obviously a very powerful and valuable technology for learning but if we swing the pendulum too far its way, we give up a lot of who and what we are, to “the machine”.  It’s all about balance!

Yes education must and will change, be reshaped by technology, and become more personalized for students.  New 21st century skills must be learned.  Technology will not only enable this it will drive and require it.  I think this should be obvious to us now given the digital rapid pace era we live in.  When you peer back in time and see how civilizations first resisted change driven by new technology (e.g., some people initially thought mass copied books must be an act of the devil), people adapted, and people benefited.  I trust that we will figure out how best to leverage technology to change education to fit our time but let’s not lose what’s good and beneficial with current methods.