Technology in Education – thoughts from a Sunday afternoon

At a recent “Lifelong Learning and Education for Sustainable Development and Citizenship” seminar, I was struck by an annoyance from my post-secondary school days: the clack of laptop keys from an unseen participant right behind me. It immediately reverted me back to those lecture halls I had long forgotten (and, to be sure, rarely attended). My mind quickly jumped on a passing cloud of distraction where I was able to release the strains of appearing to care about the matter at hand and hold a debate, just between me and the cloud, about the use of technology in, around, under, and against the classroom.

There was a palpable shift in the use of laptops in the classroom during my undergraduate years. In first year (2000), everyone in every class was still long-handedly writing their notes with a Bic pen and bound notebooks adorned with subversive stickers. By the time I reached my final year (2005), I, with my well-chewed Bic pen stolen from some hotel and my notebook clean of stickers and doodles, was in the minority. I was “old school” while most of my comrades had swanky laptops replete with USB sticks and incomprehensible jargon (elitist acronyms like URL, mp3, html, none of which I have ever figured out). I had stubbornly fallen in love with paper from a young age. I have always had a collection of random paper (free postcards at bars are a special fetish) tucked lovingly in a drawer; I relish the scent of books like perfume; I confess that I even caress fresh notebook pages as if they were capable of returning the favour. I guess you could say I am a paper pervert. It is ironic, of course, that I am typing this in a word processor to be connected electronically to a thing that does not tactilely exist. I don’t claim to be monogamous with my love – this is a dalliance, like doing it with a younger girl who does stuff your wife won’t – but I am loyal to it. I was not to be swept up in this neo-yuppie college fad. To be honest, dear reader, I have used my equally-beloved laptop in class during my MA studies for the sole purpose of avoiding note-taking and for looking up flights to escape any obligations of the sort. But I have always had a scowl in my heart reserved for those who punctuate the otherwise solemn air of lectures with the plastic nerd-thrust of keyboard typing. I accept it in my line of work (facilitating technology in the classroom, oddly or justly enough) but there is something sacred about the classroom that I feel is being degraded by the assumption that technology is a wholly good thing for schools.

Yes, my education theories are largely traditional, conservative, and command a greater respect for the value of subjects than for the people involved. I reject the Illichian notion that institutionalised learning is valueless, but I also abhor rigid, uniform, soulless demands. I think the repercussions of digital technology in the classroom are, at their worst, an example of these demands. But they also hold an awesome opening for alternative methods, venues, and challenges for critical learning. So, how do I marry these seemingly opposite views?

By calling on those of us who campaign for smart use of technology to remain fastened to strict standards of institutionalised learning so that we may truly unlock the creative potential of technology. There is no room for poor grammar, spelling mistakes, or false facts to be considered acceptable just because they come from a notion that the Internet is a shining beacon of democratic practise. There is, however, room for play; room for celebration of users who speak a different language than the one the technology operates in; room for divergent views that do not have to be distilled by editors (on the condition, however, that “conservative” views are also considered divergent); room for innovation for greater inclusion of people with disabilities; room for making this vast expanse of wires, cables, and satellites personal. Anonymity is an enemy of learning. Tangible, resourced, informed communication is what we should strive for. Illich’s ideas of “learning webs” are great and widely used to allow people to determine their own communication, but they only work for people who know what they want. It has been my experience that I only know what I want from discovering the world. School has not been the only venue to open this exploration, but it has been an important one for me. I think the work that I do daily responds to this philosophy: take widely sought-after themes and present them in accessible and efficient ways to encourage critical response. Explore (theory) through literature, numeracy, sport, art; learn (action) from books, seminars, videos, participation; present back in kind. Uni-faceted media, like the ones so highly touted in our technological love-in, are only useful if they are not treated as stand-alone triumphs. It can be – and, thank goodness, is – debated over whether commenting on a YouTube video is commiserate to learning, whether it holds the same value as a book report on Things Fall Apart. What cannot be denied, however, is that YouTube functions as a library of fast, attainable, information, but what we have to do now is get past the glorification of “available information” as being the paramount of learning. Just because a painting hangs on a wall at an art gallery does not mean it has value for anyone, including the self-loathing artist. If nothing is done with that information, if we only seek out subjectivity for the sake of being kind to the next generation of learners, what business do we have in education at all?

(Before I am accused of seeing education purely for the social good at the expense of individuality, rest assured I am not a communist, nor a stone-cold capitalist, if the two are even distinguishable, who aims to treat schools as factories of good citizens. Perhaps this is why I abhor Citizenship as a lauded area of learning. Back to the point, though, I think the space, metaphorical and physical, of “school” is vital to society and individuality. I think the two are groomed in tandem and I think that is the central function of the human experiment. Schools are a thing, not to be dismissed nor worshipped. Just a thing, like any other thing.)

Contrary to Illich’s proposal to “deschool” society, I believe in “upschooling” it. I fail to understand why institutionalised learning is our primary focus for the first, say, 25 years of our lives, only to be largely abandoned by most adults. Work takes over and we are happy to be done with the whole rigmarole of teachers and textbooks, grades and government exams. For some of us, the culmination of degrees means we are now experts who can deliver learning to our children. But learning, of course, cannot be bound by the idea of school; indeed, we need to embrace the discipline, reflection, collaboration that is provided by schools. To this end, technology will help us adults help our children develop a collective intelligence. We adopt online presences but we must never hide behind avatars; we must be accountable for the information we pass on. We must not fall into the cosy trap of digital escape. We rail for acceptance of Wikipedia to provide fast information to students, yet how many of us support public libraries anymore? We propose peer learning as a panacea to the inevitable feelings of worthlessness that crop up from time to time in our formative years, yet how many of us set aside our emails to genuinely learn from our peers? Do we even know the names of our peers beyond “coolguy102”?

Collective intelligence, to me, is simply a continuation of schooling. We teach our children that computers have an awesome power to relay information and encourage creativity. Then we should let the kids toss the computers from a sixth-floor window and see what they come up with. It scares me to see how much time kids spend online, not because I don’t spend even more time on a computer and think I am learning all the time, but because I have become a victim of my own vices: I am post-school. I don’t have to learn anymore if I don’t want to. They do, and they should.

Technology, like school, only works when it actually works. Its mere existence is not sufficient to warrant its continued presence in schools. Teacher educators have, by and large, shit-the-bed when it comes to training teachers how to use common applications. I think part of what scares adults about technology is the fact their children often know something they don’t. But I fear we will over-teach technology to our children. Not only is this ineffectual in light of the rapid speed of changing technologies, but it is dangerous if we do not allow for non-tech modes of learning; we can strip away intuition. All of my computer knowledge is self-taught. I’m sure my colleagues could tell you that I suck at computers – my theory is it is because my intuition has been deadened. I’ve mastered Windows xp at a crucial age and now my brain cannot absorb similar information: it has reached its technology saturation point (which is why trying to convert me to Macdom is pointless).

A perfect example of my dilemma here is digital books. I have a Sony eReader (twas a gift) and I have read a bit about the new iPad. Both are rubbish. Antithetical to the joy of reading, the digital “swipe” or page-turn or whatever you call it, is something consumers should rail against. They are sterile. I want to be able to lick the ink from my favourite books. I want to rip the words from those I detest. Most importantly, I do not want nerdy ideas of convenience to over-ride understanding of literature, so delicate in its paper but firmly bound in its protective shell. I don’t want a microchip. I want something I could create if I were so inclined. And I certainly don’t want my children to never know the difference.

We want to accommodate different learning styles, to embrace individuality to achieve a more general goal. Technology is a fantastic asset to this. It is still an embryo, which many passionate and well-educated people are picking apart to make sure it grows up healthy and strong. My worry is that we will become too enamoured with this “Adam of our labours” (read: Frankenstein’s monster) that we will allow him to trample over the poor village folk who don’t want touch screens and web cams, whose fingers mean nothing to them if they cannot push pen to paper, who are truly happy in their ignorance of technology. Embracing technology means embracing democracy and has, so far, meant accepting post-modernism. Therefore, I exercise my existence as another human to be most critical of it.

For more insight into my education theories, I happily share my thesis on the subject: I had formatted it ideally upon submission, in keeping in line with my demands for correct usage, but my school converted it to pdf, thus losing some of its Word charms. It is probably mostly bullshit, even by my own bias; I tend to write to figure stuff out so I encourage your criticisms. Thanks for reading.


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