Category Archives: Technology

Is Smart Technology Making Us Dumb?

How technology will affect humanity is a topic discussed often in education circles, as well as the supermarket, the subway, at PTA, and almost anywhere people gather. Intelligence Squared U.S. recently sponsored a debate on the statement: Smart Technology Is Making Us Dumb

The debaters who agreed with the statement were Nicholas Carr, author of The Glass Cage: Automation and Us and Andrew Keen, executive director of FutureCast. Debating against were David Weinberger, senior researcher at Harvard  and Genevieve Bell, anthropologist and VP at Intel Corp. All of the debaters are well-known figures in the technology or “anti-technology world.”

Both sides argued so persuasively that according to a poll of the audience afterwards the debate was declared a tie. The team supporting the statement cited studies showing that people who use technology consistently, experience cognitive overload, and the inability to process real learning. They may stop trying to learn and become dependent on technology. In one study, researchers recommended removing technology from airplane cockpits because it prevented pilots from learning how to fly on their own in crisis situations.

The other side cited that technology has eliminated “the gatekeepers,” largely elite white men who limited access to knowledge. They talked about global access in developing countries and how it has helped in the recent earthquake in Nepal and the Ebola outbreak in Africa.  Weinberger said to the opposing team:

…even if you’re right about everything you said, I think it’s undeniable that this is the greatest time in human history to be wanting to know…access to information has never been this free…you don’t have to be at a major university to get access to a wide range. The ability to engage — not just read…not even just to explore, to follow your interests where they go, by following links, and finding people who know things that you don’t…

In many ways, the debaters were talking apples and oranges. Those who argued that tech didn’t make us dumber were talking about it as a tool, something that gives us access to greater communication and information. The side saying it made us dumb were arguing that it doesn’t matter, because after we use it for a while we won’t know what to do with that access.

The reality is we need both lines of thinking because technology is here to stay. The train has left the station, so to speak.  If you don’t get on, you’ll be left behind. But we need to be more than passive passengers. We need to figure out how to control it, how to make it go where we want it to go, and how to stop it if need be.

We can’t let technology’s speed, openness, and potential seduce us into thinking that everything to do with it is good for us. It is our responsibility to continue the debate, to examine technology’s pros and cons, and make sure that our humanity prevails so that generations of the 21st century have a better chance of learning to use rather than be used by technology.

Education Models Evolve

In Audrey Watters’ essay, The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education,’ she provides an insightful analysis of recent statements by respected leaders for change in education. According to them, the Western education system is based on an outdated factory model stemming from industrialization and consequently, it needs to be replaced. Watters makes a cogent argument that this assumption is untrue based on historical facts.

I agree. It is true that the goals and maybe even the mechanics  of industrialization became intertwined with American education by the late 20th century.  But it took a long time to standardize the system.  For example, in 19th century rural America, the major purpose of multi-age one-room schoolhouses (about 200,000 of them) was to make people feel more connected to an emerging nation, to teach them the responsibilities of living in a democratic society. There was no resemblance to industrialization.

During Reconstruction, schooling was very important to African Americans; learning to read and write had been denied them as slaves. Education was the first step towards equality. In urban areas, schooling was mostly enjoyed by the elite until child-labor laws were seriously enforced in the 1920’s and 30’s allowing working-class children to take full advantage of public education. Until then, most children were “industrialized” through apprenticeships and early work years, not schools.

Watters cautions:

We tend to not see automation today as mechanization as much as algorithmization–the promise and potential in artificial intelligence and virtualization, as if this magically makes these new systems of standardization and control lighter and liberatory.

And so too we’ve invented a history of the “factory model of education” in order to justify an “upgrade”–to new software and hardware that will do much of the same thing schools have done for generations now, just (supposedly) more efficiently, with control moved out of the hands of labor (teachers) and into the hands of a new class of engineers, out of the realm of the government and into the realm of the market.

In other words, just because we have a new format in technology does not mean that its content will set us free. Accredited education will always involve the passing on of societal values and goals.

However, I would not be so quick to say that with technology solutions teachers will be replaced as education influencers. Many EdTech startups are depending on teachers to create content and pedagogy that work in digital programs.

We need engineers and instructional designers to lead in technology. Developers admit that they are far from creating education technology that is scalable—cost- and learning- effective. They want to work with educators and government agencies to “make it happen.”

How we educate students and who has control will depend on how well experienced educators, technology experts, and government agencies can collaborate for the common good—an old but still valid concept.  Let’s not allow the high speed of technology push any of us into premature interpretations, predictions, and solutions. Let’s not jump from the exaggerated gloom and doom interpretations of the past to gloom and doom predictions for the future.

Gamification and Education

I recently completed an excellent Coursera MOOC on gamification taught by Professor Kevin Werbach, Wharton, University of Pennsylvania. Gamification is the art of applying gaming principles to business, education, fitness, basically any area that is not about simply playing a game.

Both gaming principles and education involve motivation. Motivation is something internal (drive, need, craving) or external (environment, stimuli, rewards) that pushes us to action. Motivation moves us from one psychological or physical state to another usually to enjoy a positive feeling.

Hunger motivates us to get something to eat. Loneliness motivates us to connect with people. Not knowing motivates us to learn. However, it’s not that simple. If you are hungry, but it seems too hard to cook a healthy meal, you might settle for a bag of chips. If you are lonely, but are too shy to make friends, you might not do anything to relieve your loneliness. If you don’t know how to work Smart TV, and there’s a complicated explanation in a pamphlet, you may just give up.

Gamification can boost motivation through digital delivery. If you have an app that keeps track of your food intake, sends you quick healthy recipes, and so forth, you will be more motivated to skip the chips and cook. If you can be social on-line, you will be motivated to reach out. If you can just push a button on your remote to give you instructions, you are more likely to learn.

With digital programs we have the opportunity to motivate more students to learn whether through personalized learning or systems that make it easier and more fulfilling to achieve. Digital formats have already made it more appealing to complete assessments by offering instant feedback on whether students have answered correctly.

There is a lot to learn from gaming without turning every lesson into a game. The first step is to think holistically. Amy Jo Kim, CEO, Shufflebrain, says that good game designers think about the player’s whole journey, both cognitive and emotional: “A player’s [student’s] journey is their experience/progression over time.”

Not only do students bring their cultural, economic, and cognitive experiences to the learning environment, they also bring their digital prowess. A student today starts school using digital products. Exciting digital elements that work well in elementary school may not resonate in later grades.

There is also the journey through the particular program, how the student will progress and connect to the content between the beginning and the end. Some programs are very formulaic such as video/reading content/activity/quiz. The same format that motivates students in Chapter 1 may not in Chapter 10.

Game designers take into account Richard Bartle’s four types of users: Achievers, Explorers, Socialisers, and Killers when creating games. Do these categories hold true for student users? Frankly, we don’t know, but we have resources in place that can help us find out. Much of EdTech’s focus has been to develop programs that produce data profiles of individual students to inform short-term formative strategies and summative outcomes. If we collaborate, we can aggregate individual student data to discern types of digital students. This type of analysis will help us chart successful education journeys.