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The Web & The Plow

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Unfortunately, we seem to be headed in that direction. Indeed, we have been moving that way for a long time. But the computer seems to have intensified and accelerated that movement. Listen to those pushing computers for schools and you will hear "information" spoken almost as a mantra. Look at the packaged telecommunications projects and you will see that the vast majority involves the collection and sharing of data. There is, of course, a place for this kind of activity. But in leaning heavily on computers for learning, we will alter, without ever trying, what we mean by education and find, to our surprise, that we have come to the same position as my dad, shaking our heads over students who can't even comprehend what has been lost.

A second lesson we could learn from Louie Prien is that the computer, like the tractor, distances us from what we are learning. This may seem a strange statement, considering the computer can make it possible for students on opposite sides of the world to communicate with each other. But the "distance" I am talking about has to do not with physical distance but rather the cognitive distance from firsthand experience. Max Frisch, the late dramatist, defined technology as "the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it." Similarly, Roszak observes that placing a computer between the child and the subject "puts more distance between intention and result." The more complex the technology, the farther removed we find ourselves from the object of study.

Such a trade-off may be irrelevant when studying something as inaccessible as the surface of Mars. But what if the subject is trees? The best the computer can do is teach the student about trees through images and text--abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast this with the way small children normally come to know a tree--by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled- up leaves. What's more, these firsthand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations--muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air--none of which can be even approximated by a computer.

This is exactly Roszak's point when he says we don't bring all the resources of self to the computer. It is what Frisch was talking about when he said technology keeps us from experiencing the world. It is the enormous qualitative difference between learning about something and learning from something. Sadly, our schools currently do very little to facilitate this kind of learning; perhaps if they did, the computer wouldn't look so attractive in comparison.

The computer can get us lots of information about lots of things. But in extracting--and abstracting--the essential information, it filters out the rich context that direct experience provides. Although using telecommunications for education broadens the students' knowledge by bringing them accounts of other people's experiences, it cannot deepen it the way firsthand experience can. Sitting high atop the computer, students may be able to survey thousands, if not millions, of acres of knowledge, but they forgo the chance to sink their hands deep and long into the educational soil that lies right at their feet.

All this is merely to emphasize that computers bring certain values to education. These values amplify certain kinds of learning while ignoring or discouraging others. Among other things, the computer encourages an appreciation for efficiency, measurability, objectivity, rationality, progress, and the accumulation and manipulation of data--lots of data. These are all traits noted by computer advocates and their critics. But what promoters never talk about is the learning that is not inherently encouraged by the computer, learning that is therefore less valued in using technology. Here is a short list:

  • The pursuit of truth.
  • The comprehension of great ideas.
  • The generation of one's own ideas.
  • The discovery of meaning.
  • The use of good judgment.
  • The exercise of emotional maturity.
  • The development of wisdom.

These are precisely the qualities that I believe should be the fundamental goals of education--and the computer itself does nothing to enhance them. It is sad but perhaps not surprising that in more than a decade of listening to vendors, business liaisons, administrators, technology consultants, and "futurists" exude over the benefits of computers in the classroom, I have rarely heard anyone mention these profoundly human goals. Indeed, there seems to be a substitute for each of these: for the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of skills; for the comprehension of great ideas, the compilation of them; for the generation of one's own ideas, the slick packaging of others'; for the discovery of meaning, the search for resources; for the use of good judgment, reliance on data analysis; for the exercise of emotional maturity, the diminished challenge of disembodied relationships; for the development of wisdom, the achievement of success. What is troubling here is not that these "substitutes" are included in our educational objectives but that in the rush to computerize learning, they have supplanted what I believe to be the core goals of education.

I've given the computer a good bashing, so I must hasten to clarify that I am not blaming the computer for our educational woes. Our schools' blossoming love affair with computer technology is merely an indication of our society's long-evolving willingness to reduce learning to that which is material, mechanical, and measurable and to that which promotes an essentially economic view of life. The computer happens to be particularly well-suited to this limited view of learning and as a result presents a greater challenge to use healthfully than most other educational tools. Thus, as schools scramble to join the on-line festivities, it is even more crucial that we understand what the computer leaves out of learning so that we stand a better chance of recognizing what we human beings (teachers in particular) must bring to the telecomputing banquet. Because the computer distracts us from the pursuit of the higher goals of education, teachers who can keep focused on them become more critical. One of the most important roles for the teacher in the high-tech classroom is to compensate for the computer's mechanistic tendencies and to assure that all "resources of self" are brought into the learning process. It is a task that can be performed only by a caring, thoughtful person dedicated to elevating the inner life of each child.

Just getting computer technology to work is frustrating, but that's the easy part. The hard work is getting it to support our efforts to nurture our students.

This is a new teaching role we have to accept. (Certainly it should be a major concern in any telecomputing activity.) Computer technology is rapidly becoming a major ingredient of education in this country. We can't turn education over to computers, but we can't turn our backs on them either.

The response to the invention of the Gutenberg press has a lesson for us here, if we accept Marshall McLuhan's interpretation of it in his 1964 book, Understanding Media:

"If we persist in a conventional approach to these developments, our traditional culture will be swept aside as scholasticism was in the 16th century. Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg technology, they could have created a new synthesis of written and oral education, instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take over the educational enterprise. The oral Schoolmen did not meet the new visual challenge of print, and the resulting expansion or explosion of Gutenberg technology was in many respects an impoverishment of the culture."

Somehow we have to create this new synthesis, a meld in which all modes of learning are honored and given an appropriate place. But it should be clear by now that I do not think this is as easy as giving each child a computer and an Internet address. As McLuhan implies, embarking on such a course would in all too many respects lead to an impoverishment of our educational culture and, no doubt, our culture in general.

What I want to hammer home is that using computer technology in education is hard work. Some may find it frustrating just to get the machinery to work, but that's really the easy part. The hard work is getting it to support our efforts to nurture our students' attempts to reach their highest human potential. With the perplexing task before us of integrating computer technology with print and oral traditions, now is hardly the time for the teacher to step aside and become what the wide-eyed technophiles call "the guide on the side." We have a responsibility to preserve from the old what is dear to us as well as to discover in the new what is truly beneficial. That is an enormous task and not something to be left to chance encounters in cyberspace.

A new synthesis of education. This is really what is needed. It is the harnessing of a new powerhouse to the educational plow, not to replace the old familiar workhorses but to enhance and extend their reach when it serves human purposes. Educational telecomputing is not just a matter of how to get these machines communicating with each other. It is not just a technical activity. It is, rather, an enterprise governed by the search for opportunities for student growth.

At times, I have been surprised at the depth of human understanding that the computer has facilitated. At other times, I have had to work very hard to keep the technology from choking it. But always, I have tried to set as the goal expanding my young students' minds and hearts rather than expanding the use of the computer for its own sake. This is one of the key responsibilities of classroom teachers--to protect the interests of the children in their care against the commercial/technological alliance that too often cares more about education as a market than as a servant of children's needs. This is not to say we should resist all change; our system of education has been in desperate need of radical change for decades. But if schools are going to be part of the educational revolution, the change has to emerge from the classroom, not from the boardroom, not from the houses of Congress, and certainly not from cyberspace. It has to be led by teachers who care about the lives of each of their students, not policymakers focusing on the economic competitiveness of the nation.

Our schools' love affair with technology is an indication of society's willingness to reduce learning to that which is material, mechnical, and measurable.

Whatever we think of them, computers will be part of the educational landscape. Will the reflection of society that we see in tomorrow's classrooms be a cold, mechanical training ground focused on the ingestion of megabytes of information, or will it be an image filled with the rich textures and deep meanings that form the tapestry of a thoughtful life? Will our digital tools be synthesized into a larger, more holistic learning environment, or will we simply capitulate to a new but restricted form of education?

As I watch school districts install in their elementary grades computerized "integrated learning systems," I am not encouraged. But there are glimmers of hope in other places. There seems to be a natural convergence taking place among social critics like Postman, holistic child psychologists, some alternative schools (particularly Waldorf schools), and the environmental movement regarding the role of computers in education. This convergence may result in asking not how widely computers should be integrated into the curriculum but rather at what point computers should become a part of a child's educational experience. Keeping the computer away from children in the early grades as they most intensely negotiate their relationship with the physical world may be as important for a healthy synthesis as getting the computer into their hands is as they get older. A childhood steeped in rich, physical, and organic experiences may to some extent inoculate the adult against the dehumanizing, mechanistic aspects of a high-tech society.

But we shouldn't wait for the education system to alter technology's course; that is likely to be a very long wait. Individuals can find ways to transform the computer into a tool that contributes far more to the goals I listed earlier than it detracts from them.

It is our responsibility as educators to lead that exploration critically, always concerned about what we are giving up as well as what we might gain--searching for the synthesis that McLuhan advocated. Only if we approach the computer and its uses in this way will we be able to escape becoming the teaching equivalent of my poor uncle Virgil. With the welfare of our students at stake, it is not enough for educators to merely ride along on the runaway technological wagon. To do so would inevitably turn us into technicians and education into mere training. If we want to truly enrich and ennoble the lives of our students, then we each have to grab the reins and force these spirited new dynamos within our reach to work for us in ways that once again elevate the higher human purposes of education.

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