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Technology is Still the Bogeyman

February 13th, 2009 jonmott Leave a comment Go to comments

In a recent Science Daily article, Patricia Greenfield’s research on the impact of technology on learning was summarized under the banner “Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis?” The piece depicts Greenfield’s research as casting technology in a decidedly negative light when it comes to facilitating the development of critical thinking and analysis skills. The original research report was published in Science (2 January 2009:Vol. 323. no. 5910, pp. 69 – 71), which you may or may not be able to access (depending on rights provided by an educational instituiton or libary with which you are affiliated).

There was an energetic discussion (provoked by Clay Burell’s blog post) about both the Science Daily article and the original research over at http://education.change.org. I won’t rehash in detail here whether or not the Science Daily write-up was a faithful interpretation of the underlying research or not. (For the record, I agree that Clay would have been on firmer ground had he read the original Science piece before writing his critique. But I’m also sympathetic to some of the comments about access to Science being limited.) In any case, it struck me that there are still a lot of folks out there who want to make technology the bogeyman. The Science Daily headline clearly implied that technology was the reason behind declining critical thinking skills. When laptops don’t work in the classroom, it must be that the technology wasn’t appropriate for the classroom. When wireless network initiatives result in distracted students during lectures, we blame the wireless technology. When kids don’t read for pleasure, we blame technology too. If they just weren’t so distracted by video games, cell phones, mp3 players, and social networking sites, maybe they’d read more and think deeper thoughts. Again, we blame the technology, and not the environment in which kids are educated and nurtured.

If you’re even an occasional reader of my ramblings here, you’re probably anticipating the soapbox I’m about to climb up on. Wait for it . . . Here it comes . . .

Technology can’t do anything by itself!

Neither can money! Or cars for that matter! These are all things that humans use for good or for ill. Technology doesn’t “produce” anything! It is the ways we use technology or the ways it is implemented that produce particular kinds of results.  As I said in my response to Clay’s post, you get what you design. If people design boring, process-driven, mindless “learning” experiences for students (with or without technology!), they shouldn’t be surprised that students hate it (or quickly tune out when there’s something more interesting to do, like browsing the web).

This is all simply a design issue and virtually every technology at our disposal is a design tool. If we want critical thinking we should design learning activities that promote and assessments that gauge critical thinking, using the appropriate mix of technologies. Technology can’t do anything by itself, but it seems to be an increasingly convenient bogeyman for people who don’t want to do the hard work of improving learning design and reforming education so learning–and not teaching–are the center of it all.

  • I have to agree with you Jon.

    I remember in Postman's book Technopoly he starts by telling the story of one of the Greek gods who invented writing. This "technology" was panned by the other gods. They were critical because this new invention would cause man to be lazy. They wouldn't have to remember anything if they could just write it down.

    My guess is that the gods were worried that their subjects would be distracted during their lectures with that silly little "writing" trend.

    This isn't a knock on the academic world, but in the private sector we can't worry about how our learners "should" learn, but how they DO learn in everyday life. It seems to me that the classrooms are always a few generations behind the way the students use technology in everyday life.

    One of the companies I started (www.wi5connect) is using the technology of social networking and blending it with a custom learning management system to create tool sets for community learning as well as formal learning. It's worked well for FrankinCovey, Omniture and 1-800-Contacts. I'd love to see how it would work in a college classroom.

  • Hey Corey. Great to hear from you! I love the reference RE Greek gods & writing. Very nice. I hadn't heard of wi5connect--sounds pretty cool. It's right in line with some thoughts I've been having about connecting web 2.0 tools with CMS/LMS apps. Drop me a note--I'd love to get together and talk about it in more detail.

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