Technology: Riding the Wave

by Mr. Hugh Burke


It is a medium of entertainment which permits millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome.  ~T.S. Eliot, about radio 

The drive toward complex technical achievement offers a clue to why the U.S. is good at space gadgetry and bad at slum problems.  ~John Kenneth Galbraith

Many people have claimed that technology will fundamentally change how children learn, and how schools are organized. It clearly will not. For example, in 1967, Marshall McLuhan wrote about what “The Class of 1989” might be like, and why:

By the time this year’s babies have become 1989’s graduates (if college “graduation” then exists), schooling as we now know it may be only a memory…

When computers are properly used, in fact, they are almost certain to increase individual diversity. A worldwide network of computers will make all of mankind’s factual knowledge available to students everywhere in a matter of minutes or seconds. Then, the human brain will not have to serve as a repository of specific facts, and the uses of memory will shift in the new education …

Central school computers can also help keep track of students as they move freely from one activity to another, whenever moment-by-moment or year-by-year records of students’ progress are needed. This will wipe out even the administrative justification for schedules and regular periods, with all their anti-educational effects, and will free teachers to get on with the real business of education. …

Television will aid students in exploring and interacting with a wide-ranging environment. It will, for example, let them see into the atom or out into space; visualize their own brainwaves; create artistic patterns of light and sound; become involved with unfamiliar old or new ways of living, feeling, perceiving; communicate with other learners, wherever in the world they may be…

Clearly, McLuhan was somewhat misguided in his hopes for 1989. We hear the same sort of thing today, however, in the claims that all the information that kids need is “out there”, but readily available, and that this will somehow change everything. It won’t, of course. Information is not knowledge. Meaning does not reside in multimedia or keyboards.

A leading thinker in this area is Neil Postman, who noted the threat to our children from this focus on the huge supply of easily accessed information:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.

Currently, it is difficult to argue with this point. The internet is filled with trivia, with disinformation, with entertainment, and with the detritus of unfiltered thought. Pornography accounts for a very high proportion of internet use. Facebook has led to a completely different meaning of “friend”. The internet is also filled with much that is useful and thoughtful and illuminating. But the information highway is a bit like a woodpile: It needs to be sorted, and stored well, and used appropriately. As Postman writes:

If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it.

It seems clear that technology is now a part of our institutional and personal lives. The old notions of “teaching” computer use, or of “computer labs” may not serve us well, in the face of rapid change. By the time we have developed a curriculum, it will be outdated. We need to understand that technology is not an option, but central, and that we need to accommodate for it. The accommodation must be ongoing, rooted in educational beliefs, based on continuous reflection, and wary of gimmickry.

The rise of digital communication and social media present a challenge and an opportunity for our school. Our children now carry devices with which to access telephones, photography, video, games, texts, music, encyclopaedias, blogs, and a whole range of human representation. Our students from grade five and up have laptops, and are capable of doing things which were unthinkable fifty years ago, from communication to analysis to multimedia. We create online classroom communities. Teachers have their own websites, and send voice threads to parents. Some teachers use Smart Boards; others make very good use of the projectors and sound systems in the classroom. Our theatre lights can be controlled from a laptop. We send out emails to students, rather than newsletters each day. Report cards are online. Our school has numerous servers, and printing capabilities for students and staff. Televisions loaded with images of the students and parents are located throughout the school. The students in the Headmaster’s Philosophy class downloaded films and images and text, while he was teaching, about what he was teaching.

All of this has certainly changed things within the school. Yet the centre of the school continues: there is no different literacy, as the work involves reading and writing and drawing and representing and music and dance and movement and working together.  Our students still love books. They enjoy working together more than online, and will travel to each others’ houses to work together. Parents get to talk to each other more, and in different ways. Social media and digital communications have enhanced classroom learning, strengthened human connection, supported a range of representation, and created better teaching and learning conditions.

Most importantly, we see that information is not knowledge, connection is still personal, and learning is not simply information processing, but active meaning-making. There is something deeply human in schools, and technology does not replace it.

The uses of technology in our school are driven by, and controlled through, our central beliefs about learning. It is not the technology which has created the conditions for constructing meaning in learning. In fact, technology can be used to drive any form of teaching, whether boring or exciting. Computers do not change teaching methods, but beliefs about teaching and learning influence the use of computers. Technology in our school must be seen as intimately connected to, and supportive of, our views of teaching and learning. As teachers reach for the technology that supports active learning and excellent teaching, we must support them.

However, it is not enough simply to encourage the use of technology. Everyone in our community should come to understand that technology has biases, and that the medium changes the message.

Summary

The central conception of learning in our school – that it is the active construction of meaning – controls our use of technology. Technology will not completely change schooling, or make it a thing of the past; rather, technology will continue to be seamlessly woven in to the fabric of our learning practices, and will enhance learning in the school, rather than change it.

Just as students learn constructively, so do teachers, and this work of teachers-as-learners must continue, with strong school support.

There is work to be done in ensuring access to technology, in designing spaces for technological use, in promoting reflection on technology, and in using varying technologies as one part of a design cycle; but what may be most important is to teach the history, social effects, and psychological biases of technology. Like any tool, as it is used, it can change the user, and we must be conscious of using it wisely.

We are serious about making sure our graduates are capable of shaping our common future, and not being shaped by forces that are out of their control. We need to make sure that our school and our students control technology, and are not controlled by it.

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