College Writing, Learning, Machines, Pedagogy

More about Technology and Education

When I was sixteen I took Shōrin-ryū lessons with a friend of mine at the local Y. The first thing we asked our instructor was, “When will we receive training with weapons?” Why did we ask this question? Because we were sixteen. Our instructor, who was not sixteen, fortunately, told us that he didn’t train students to use weapons until they were at least a brown belt, which is one stage before black, because weapons are an extension of our bodies. We can’t learn to use weapons properly until we learn to use our bodies properly.

Similarly, technology is an extension of our minds. All the tech in the world won’t make us smarter if we haven’t developed our minds. Without that mental development, we’ll just be idiots with fancy toys, and I think we all know the world has enough of those already. So the first question we need to ask about any educational technology is, “In what ways, exactly, will this educational technology improve our teaching?” My experience with a great deal of educational technology is that the learning curve for instructors and students is so steep, and the tech so buggy, that tech, except when completely necessary, is as much an impediment to learning as it is a benefit.

When we think about the use of tech in education, we should also consider the fact that “traditional education” using “outmoded methods” invented the computer, the cellphone, and put astronauts on the moon. Given the history of education, I think it’s safe to say that educational tech is irrelevant to educational effectiveness. I think it’s important to understand that educational tech is not a magic bullet that will suddenly transform colleges into centers of effective learning (most of them actually are already). The basis of strong education is committed and well-supported instructors.

The Luddites were an early-industrial group of English workers who, because they were under the threat of being displaced by machinery, went out and started destroying machines. I don’t mean to advocate for some kind of twenty-first-century educational Luddism. There is no turning back, or away, from our culture’s dependence upon technology in the foreseeable future. I think we need to distinguish between educating students using technology and educating students to use technology. Rather than looking for the next magic pedagogical bullet in a box, I think we should be teaching our students to code, basic programming languages, how computers and networks work, and so on. We need to raise the bar on technological literacy, in other words, but that’s very different from looking for the latest multimillion dollar pedagogical tool while we continue to disinvest in teachers.

I would like to encourage students and instructors to focus primarily on developing the most advanced technology that we all have: that highly complex processor wet-wired between our ears. Read a lot and read increasingly complex texts. Learn how to write well. Take the most advanced math that you can. No matter what your major, try to get in at least a year of calculus before you finish college, preferably one semester before you finish high school. If you develop yourself in these ways, your tech will be an extension of your highly developed mind enabling you to do things better and faster. If you don’t, your tech will do your thinking for you, and the only possibilities that you’ll ever be able to consider will be determined by the programming parameters of your equipment.

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