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The Limits of Technology: It Can Provide Information. It Can’t Educate.

January 31, 2015

Two recent essays on technology posed related questions in their title. Susan Pinker’s NYTimes op ed piece asked “Can Students Have Too Much Tech?” and Larry Cuban’s three-part series of blog posts asked “Will Teaching and Learning Become Automated?” My response to both questions is “NO”.

Pinker’s response, though, is: YES! Based on studies conducted over the past decade it is evident that providing all children with equal access to technology increases the performance divide instead of diminishing it. Why? Here’s Pinker’s answer with my emphases:

We don’t know why this is, but we can speculate. With no adults to supervise them, many kids used their networked devices not for schoolwork, but to play games, troll social media and download entertainment. (And why not? Given their druthers, most adults would do the same.)

The problem is the differential impact on children from poor families. Babies born to low-income parents spend at least 40 percent of their waking hours in front of a screen — more than twice the time spent by middle-class babies. They also get far less cuddling and bantering over family meals than do more privileged children. The give-and-take of these interactions is what predicts robust vocabularies and school success. Apps and videos don’t.

Larry Cuban, long a technology skeptic, rightly believes technology has been oversold as the ultimate solution to providing a cheap means of offering an equitable education and especially laments the effects this line of thinking has had on the definition of schooling and teaching. In the third part of a three part series, Cuban undercuts the “…conceit that super-duper software will eventually, not today but in some future tomorrow, automate teaching.” He opens his argument by describing the new, narrow “purpose of schooling” and contrasting it with the definition in previous eras:

What technophiles forget, neglect, trip over—pick a verb–are the multiple purposes for tax-supported schools in a democracy. They and many other futurists err—my verb choice—in equating access to information with becoming educated. The purpose of schooling is reduced to acquiring information.

Tax-supported public schools have been and are social, political, and moral institutions whose historic job has been to help children and youth acquire multiple literacies, enter the labor market well prepared, vote, serve on juries, contribute to their communities, think for themselves, and live full and worthwhile lives.

Until three decades ago, these diverse purposes for tax-supported public schools were obvious; now those purposes have been narrowed to job preparation… Engaged citizenship, contributing to one’s community, and living worthwhile lives remain in the shadows. Few policymakers, philanthropists, technology futurists have challenged (or are willing to challenge) the swelling embrace of automated instruction that promise transforming schools into information factories.

Cuban eloquently and passionately describes the importance of good teachers:

Effective teaching, like work in other helping professions such as medicine, social work, and religious counseling is anchored in relationships. Those student/teacher relationships convert information into knowledge and, on occasion, knowledge into wisdom about the self and world. Teachers, then, from preschool through high school  are far more than deliverers of information.

In classrooms, they set and enforce the rules that socialize the young to act consistent with community norms. They set an example of adult behavior becoming for some students exemplars to model. They create classroom cultures that can encourage individual achievement, cooperative behavior, and independent decision-making….

Teachers make thousands of decisions in planning, conducting lessons, and assessing how well students are doing. Hundreds of those decisions are made in the nanosecond during teacher/student exchanges in daily lessons. Many decisions are moral ones in that they involve her authority as teacher, parental expectations, and student behaviors. Decisions over right and wrong are ever-present in classrooms. Teachers sort out conflicts daily among students over truth-telling and differences between parental values and school norms…  No software program that I know has algorithms that either make instantaneous decisions when events pop up unexpectedly or split-second moral decisions.

Given these complicated human interactions, Cuban cannot see a day when teachers will be replaced by technology.

While both Pinker and Cuban are wary of the overselling of technology, both recognize it has a place inside and outside the classroom and both tacitly acknowledge that the roles of teachers will need to change in order to take full advantage of all that technology has to offer. After reading both articles, I found that Pinker’s conclusion and Cuban’s analysis overlap in Pinker’s concluding paragraph:

“…the public money spent on wiring up classrooms should be matched by training and mentorship programs for teachers, so that a free and open Internet, reached through constantly evolving, beautifully packaged and compelling electronic tools, helps — not hampers — the progress of children who need help the most.”

And while neither writer says so explicitly, I think both would agree that in addition to spending money on technology once students are in school, it would be far more beneficial to invest in programs that nurture babies born to low-income families socially and academically and provide more supervision for students after school. Technology can provide information: technology cannot educate.

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