The Educational Technology Paradox – The Shallows

We just recently updated our kids’ tele-technology, letting the older boy purchase his first smartphone (an Android) and getting our younger one a device just for phoning and texting (no data).

At 15 and 12 respectively, they’re a bit behind their peers with regard to personal tech.  In addition to those phones, the family still shares one computer for entertainment and homework (although my old laptop serves as a backup).  And a tablet is floating around that the kids use primarily to watch videos.  So while the household is brimming with more gadgets than anything the majority of humanity ever grew up with, I’d still place us on the lower end of the scale vis-à-vis human-to-computer ratios.

While choices of what and when technology enters the household were made as a family (with my wife and I the prime decision-makers), they also reflect my personal ambivalence with regard to technology applied to education.

This may sound strange coming from someone who crammed 34 courses into 2013, courses available for free only because technology (specifically the Internet, MOOC learning management systems, low-cost video editing software, et al) enabled them to exist.  And other technology, such as WordPress, MailChimp, iTunes – not to mention Adobe and Microsoft application suites running on my own (unshared) laptop – allowed me to share that experience with all of you.

Having completed a project like the One Year BA, it’s impossible to deny the super-empowerment that comes from being hooked into a system that combines the world’s biggest library with the world’s most powerful communication network, one that allowed me to interact with the leaders of the MOOC movement while also allowing others (like the girl from Switzerland who e-mailed me yesterday wondering when the book would be available) for free.

Such super-empowerment has already played a role in transforming education for millions, providing access to massive amounts of educational content to anyone with an Internet connection (which will eventually grow to everyone as the hardware side of the Digital Divide continues to close) as well as giving teachers a host of new techniques and applications they can implement in their classrooms, or kids to learn with at home.

But even as technology allows us to change the world, it is also making changes to us.  The culture of distraction that access to everyone and everything anytime already makes classroom and homework time a struggle between focusing on learning and focusing on nonsense.  But this is just a symptom of something deeper that might be happening to our brains as we go further and further down high-tech rabbit hole.

I discussed this issue when I reviewed a book called The Shallows at the end of this podcast and in this follow up (both part of my Critical Voter critical-thinking curriculum project from 2012).  The thesis of the book is that even as we use technology to shape our world, that technology is also shaping us in unexpected and not necessarily positive ways.

The author of The Shallows, journalist Nicolas Carr, likens the introduction of the Internet to the introduction of written language, a technology that freed mankind from having to remember everything worth knowing.  And while there is no question that writing represented a huge leap forward, it required us to give up something to receive that bounty: the prodigious memories that powered the brain of Socrates (among other great thinkers).

You can see this same phenomenon today – probably in yourself – as things you once committed to memory (appointments, phone numbers, neighbor’s names, even your kids’ birthdays) are now being handled for you by Google (or some other device or service). And in the classroom, why should kids memorize dates or understand geography when beautiful online timelines and maps are just a click away?

Carr discovered this phenomenon when he realized that at some point he could not remember he stopped using hard copy to write and edit his articles and began to do all of his brainstorming, writing and editing in a word processor – meaning that at some un-recalled time his computer had trained him to practice his craft differently.  And while such a shift seems innocent enough (and might just represent a transition of convenience), once he found his reading patterns had also changed (turning from a quiet, exclusive experience to one of skimming as multiple online distractions competed for attention)  that he realized the rewiring of our plastic brains might not all be for the good.

Getting back to my kids (who, I suspect, are not that different from yours), it is clear that standing before technological progress yelling “Stop” (by excluding technology from our household, as some neighbors and friends have done with mixed success) is not an option we are going to choose.  This decision represents not weakness but recognition that the Internet is a wonderful thing that I cannot deny to my children, especially having experienced the kind of bounty it provides a curious mind.

But we can teach them how to use this technology in ways that does not let it master them.  For instance, it heartens me to know that when my older boy was without a phone for weeks at a time (at rock-climbing camp last summer and the two weeks between when his old phone busted and he got another) he did not go into withdrawal or turn into a nutcase.  And during both boys’ pre- and post-phone careers, they have been avid readers who can spend hours-long drives doing nothing but focusing on a low-tech book.

That Critical Voter site I just mentioned (where the Shallows review appeared) was actually built around lessons I taught my sons on how to think critically, including how to separate fact from pap on the Internet.  And while I still struggle to explain to them that Wikipedia might contain the occasional lapse or that John Oliver might not be their best single source for news, it seems as though teaching them to think like a human being has been the best hedge against an overweening TechnoCore eager to teach them to think (or not think) like machines.


No comments yet, your thoughts are welcome »

Leave a Reply