Computers, revisited

(This entry is a development of the on-the-spot blogging I did at the teacher’s convention, the one dedicated to “technology”.  There is some overlap between this entry and the previous entry, but enough new material that I thought it was worth posting here.)

A few thoughts on Thursday’s teacher’s conference:

One of the first things I noticed about the conference was the subtle re-defining of the word “technology”.  The word “technology” in its proper sense refers to any tool, machine, system, or method of organization used to solve a problem.  The alphabet is a technology.  The quill and parchment are a technology.  The wheel is a technology.  Organizing time into minutes, seconds, and hours is a technology. Certain modes of thought such as inductive reasoning can be described as technologies.  Calculus is a technology.  The ballpoint pen is a technology, and a fairly remarkable one (which anyone who has used a fountain pen and ink jar can probably attest to).     

Yet in this conference the word “technology” was used exclusively to refer to computers.  The implication, of course, was that other technologies are not really technologies at all.  This may seem like a minor semantic quibble but it actually represents a profound value judgement, especially for any teacher who considers paper, pencils, paint brushes, musical instruments, and athletic equipment valuable technologies for education.
I was also fascinated by the premise of the conference, which was that we must “integrate technology in the classroom” (a coded term for “use computers as much as possible”) to “prepare students for the twenty-first century” (a term which probably implies job market preparation rather than liberal education). The reasoning behind the premise seems to be something along the lines of: “Since computers are widely used in industrialized countries, we should also use them more frequently in schools.” 
The problem with this premise is that it assumes that if students don’t use computers a lot in school they won’t use them anywhere else and thus they will be hopelessly unprepared for life.  Yet this assumption doesn’t really stand up to critical scrutiny.  Is there anyone reading this who honestly thinks that students need more practice in learning how to use computer technology? That if they aren’t using computers in school they will be lost when sitting in front of a keyboard at home? If anything, the fact that computers are such an integrated technology in the contemporary world means that students might benefit from less exposure to them in schools, not more.  
There are many things students lack that we need to teach them in school: sustained reading, abstract thinking, tactile creativity,critical reasoning, moral decision making, social engagement.  But computer literacy isn’t one of those things. (Although no doubt many people at the conference would insist that computers can help them do all of the aforementioned things even better, thus giving a technological solution to what is, essentially, a set of human problems).
The problem of educators devoting so much time and energy to the use of computers at professional development sessions is that computers, by their very nature, are constantly changing, and thus, in theory, there is a never-ending series of topics to be addressed on future professional development sessions, all of which distract from engaging in meaningful discussion about education itself.  Thus we learn how to use Gmail, Facebook, Google, Google+, Moodle, Blogger, and Glogster (yes, there actually is such a thing, as I learned on Thursday) in our courses, but we never discuss the content of the courses themselves.  We talk endlessly about means, but never address ends.
For example, last year at my daughter’s school Iattended a parent information session on Blogger in which we were shown how blogs were going to be used in the classroom. As an example, we were shown a blog created to teach students all the different agricultural techniques used by the ancient Egyptians.  But whether it is valuable for students to learn about the agricultural techniques used by the ancient Egyptians in the first place was not addressed.  Yet I would think that would be a far more important and intriguing topic.  Frankly, I can’t think of anything more depressing than my daughter having to memorize a list of farming tools used in ancient Egypt; whether or not she is doing this through a blog seems immaterial at best—yet ironically, Thursday’s conference seemed to suggest that having her memorize this ridiculous historical trivia using a blog would be “preparing her for the twenty-first century.”
By the end of the conference  I had realized that computers (or“technology” in the coded terminology of the conference) are becoming not only a means but also the end goal of contemporary education.  The goal of the conference seemed to be to encourage us to use computers in our classrooms; what we used them for didn’t seem to matter that much (or at least wasn’t directly addressed).  This is what Neil Postman meant by his term “technopoly”: a culture in which technology is no longer merely the means of achieving goals, but is in and of itself the purpose for which the culture exists.  Technology begins to perpetuate itself.
Sadly, I am no longer surprised that there are students who do not realize that the alphabet, arithmetic, and loose-leaf paper are profound, complex, and magnificent technologies.  But I am taken aback that there are so many educators who seem to agree with them.


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