Wednesday, September 08, 2004

The Human Touch

Technology does not design learning experiences, educators do. If you don’t like the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, do you decry frescos and paintbrush manufacturers? Or do you take it up with Michelangelo and Pope Julius? If a project has no constraints, it can take forever, cost a fortune, look spectacular, and still not meet the expectations of its customer. If educators abdicate their responsibilities to programmers, or if they fail to see or exploit the potential of a technology, they carry much of the responsibility for the resulting shallowness of the end result. Clearly, every technology imposes limitations. But the internet imposes far fewer limitations – and presents far greater opportunities – than previous linear distribution technologies like books, video or television.

In a long and surprisingly ideological article titled The Human Touch, Lowell Monke bemoans the impact of technology on education. Lowell is an assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University, and his article focuses on K-12, so his perspective is different from those in the corporate learning world. His starting position is that those with faith in technology have always been spectacularly wrong about their technology’s ability to revolutionize education, and that the internet is no exception.

My response is that critics of new technologies have always been spectacularly wrong about the impact of those technologies on society. And where today’s technology is concerned, yesterday’s results have little predictive value. Or, at least, the lessons of history are easily misinterpreted. In the big picture, I agree that much of what passes for online education is a pretty poor effort; but I disagree that it is technology’s fault. If “the human touch” is absent from a learning experience, it is because those who designed the experience failed to grasp that the internet is all about connecting people with each other.

A computer can inundate a child with mountains of information. However, all of this learning takes place the same way: through abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know a tree—by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled-up leaves. Just as important, these firsthand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations—muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air. The computer cannot even approximate any of this.

Neither can a classroom, or a book. And therein lies a problem with much of Lowell’s position. Before one dismisses technology enhanced learning, one should first judge its alternatives by the same standards. Yes, much of the knowledge we encounter online is abstract and two dimensional, but so is what we read in a book or see on a whiteboard.

McLuhan understood that the consumption and manipulation of symbolic, abstract information is not an adequate substitute for concrete, firsthand involvement with objects, people, nature, and community, for it ignores the child’s primary educational need—to make meaning out of experience.

Again, this is true. But, again, if internet technologies are intelligently invoked they can add to the experience and the meaning in any lesson. When I was a kid, Afghanistan was a place that hairy dogs came from and where the Khyber Pass was. I had no idea what a pass or a Khyber actually was. Today’s child can e-mail children at schools in Kabul. That’s context. That’s experience. That’s meaning.

Lowell uses the example of the simulation game “Oregon Trail” to illustrate his point that simulations fail to teach about reality; that players learn that managing resources is what it takes to be a pioneer, not courage, ingenuity, and faith. He blames technology, but this weakness is in the person or people who conceived the simulation, not in the technology itself. And this is where Lowell really loses me: he asserts that technology has a “propensity to promote certain qualities while sidelining others.” Yes, Marshall McLuhan talked about this as amplification and amputation, but (much as I used to devour his work) McLuhan didn’t get the future right.

So why is it that schools persist in believing they must expose children to computers early? I think it is for the same reason that we take our children to church, to Fourth of July parades, and indeed to rituals of all types: to initiate them into a culture—in this case, the culture of high technology. The purpose is to infuse them with a set of values that supports the high-tech culture that has spread so rapidly across our society. And this, as we shall see, is perhaps the most disturbing trend of all.

What is it about those who have decided that technology is A Bad Thing that makes them read deep and disturbing Stepfordian subtexts into its proliferation? Technology is freely adopted because it makes our lives easier, enriches our leisure time, and makes us more productive or more efficient at work. Technologies that do not do these things for us do not proliferate. Are there downsides to doing things with technology that we used to do some other way, or were not able to do before? Undoubtedly. But I for one am delighted that my calculator replaced my slide-rule, and that I am much more in contact with people at a distance than I was when sending a letter involved filling a fountain-pen, finding paper and envelope, and going to the post office to get a stamp. I enjoy getting the news in my fields of interest fed to me in real-time via RSS instead of waiting till 11pm and hoping the local TV news will find time between the police reports and Hollywood gossip to cover news that is relevant to me.

Every tool demands that we somehow change our environment or values in order to accommodate its use... the music teacher whose program has been cut in order to fund computer labs; the principal who has had to beef up security in order to protect high-priced technology; the superintendent who has had to craft an “acceptable use” agreement that governs children’s use of the Internet ... What the computers-are-just-tools argument ignores is the ecological nature of powerful technologies—that is, their introduction into an environment reconstitutes all of the relationships in that environment, some for better and some for worse. Clinging to the belief that computers have no effect on us allows us to turn a blind eye to the sacrifices that schools have made to accommodate them.

Right. Every school has a limited budget. Within that budget, there are competing priorities. In some schools, books are more important than desks, and teachers are more important than books. In others, the football coach has more clout than the music teacher, and the library loses out to the science labs. These are issues of policy and politics. If it is too disruptive, too complicated, or too expensive to internet-enable a school, and a sound enough argument cannot be made for the technology, don’t do it. Or lobby for more funds to make it possible, because five years from now every school will be connected and seven years from now nobody will be able to imagine how they got by without it.

In reconstituting learning as the acquisition of information, the computer also shifts our values. The computer embodies a particular value system, a technological thought world first articulated by Francis Bacon and René Descartes four hundred years ago, that turns our attention outward toward asserting control over our environment ... As it has gradually come to dominate Western thinking, this ideology has entered our educational institutions. Its growing dominance is witnessed in the language that abounds in education: talk of empowerment, student control of learning, standards, assessment tools, and productivity. Almost gone from the conversation are those inner concerns—wisdom, truth, character, imagination, creativity, and meaning—that once formed the core values of education. Outcomes have replaced insights as the yardstick of learning, while standardized tests are replacing human judgment as the means of assessment. No tool supports this technological shift more than computers.

This is a little silly – though I accept the notion that “those inner concerns” are important, if they have disappeared, it is hardly a result of some rampant technocratic ideology. The world is not the comfortable predictable place it was fifty years ago, today’s student is exposed to hundreds of times more information than an earlier generation, and educators and learning processes have to adapt to stay relevant. The changes in those processes are conceived and implemented by people, not machines, though I agree that machines have made those changes possible. There is no doubt that, like corporate employees, students have to learn more about more things every day, and have decreasing amounts of available time in which to do it. Traditional school systems with rigid start and finish times, fixed curricula, pre-defined contact hours, and teachers under as much pressure to keep learning as their students, are ill-suited to accommodate these learning demands. With careful design, self-managed learning can ease the burdens of teachers and students, without creating a generation of out-of-touch machine-fixated sociopaths. Just as corporate trainers are finding that blending online learning with classroom interaction can save time and accelerate learning, schools should be exploring ways to make classroom work more social and hands-on while basic knowledge is taken care of online.

I am currently working with the Alliance for Childhood on a set of developmental guidelines to help educators create technology-awareness programs that help young people think about, not just with, technology. This is not the place to go into the details of those guidelines. What I want to emphasize here is that they share one fundamental feature: They situate technology within a set of human values rather than out in front of those values. They do not start by asking what children need to do to adapt to a machine world, but rather, which technologies can best serve human purposes at every educational level and how we can prepare children to make wise decisions about their use in the future.
Bravo! This – and not all of the lead-up to it in his article – is what is really relevant and important. Once again, the complexity of the debate about technology leads me to agree enthusiastically with the conclusion and recommended actions, while finding the rationale to be full of holes. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is great, so long as the reasons don’t acquire credibility in themselves.

We need to take responsibility for what we do with technology, instead of allowing technology to dictate our strategy or constrain our vision. In order to do that, we need to learn enough about technology to understand what it is, and is not, capable of doing. Unlike with Word or Excel, where not being a power user merely means you take longer to get things done, educators who do not fully grasp the potentials and pitfalls of technology enhanced learning risk doing real damage – to their learners, to e-learning itself, and to their own careers. It is not enough to have mastered an authoring package – educators need to be competent analysts of learning problems and architects of learning solutions. They need to be able to put together the right plan and select the right tools for the job. The best solution may not be a technological one at all, or it may involve elements of different technologies mixed with elements of “traditional” processes such as classroom work or mentoring. If you can’t see the big picture, you should not start building.

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