Americans put a lot of faith in technology. Nowadays, we see computers, one-gun projectors, Smart boards, and similar technologies as essential to education. But are they really?
In many cases, computers and PowerPoint and one-guns are simply fancier overhead projectors. And when you show a video, does it matter if it’s from YouTube or from a DVD or from an old film projector? Many of the new technologies allow us to make slides or show videos with more ease, but they don’t change education in any fundamental way.
Take calculators. When I was in middle school in the 1970s, electronic calculators were taking over from slide rules as the new shortcut calculating device. I wouldn’t want to go back to slide rules, but calculators didn’t make us any smarter. Indeed, by focusing on getting the right answer as an exercise in operating the calculator, the new devices tended to obscure the meaning of the answer. You learned to operate the machine and not necessarily the concepts behind the mathematics. It was all solution, no understanding.
I didn’t like it at the time, but I learned long division, how to do square roots, how to solve quadratic equations, how to plot a graph without a calculator doing the heavy lifting for me.
Classrooms themselves are fascinating areas where “old” technology often lingers. I still use chalk boards (or white boards), and I still occasionally use those old overhead projectors. I was using slide projectors as late as the year 2000; in some ways, they were better than PowerPoint (e.g. brighter images and no worries about gigabytes of memory or backwards compatibility).
All this is to say that I’m skeptical when someone touts a technology as revolutionizing education. It’s true that students need to know about computers and the Internet; the so-called Digital Divide is a real thing, with disadvantaged students suffering in a world driven by computers.
But education itself remains a process that is personal, creative, imaginative; education is an exercise in alchemy, the mixing of minds in the classroom that sometimes creates dross, but other times leads to – well, maybe not gold – but to exciting new ideas.
If technology can serve as a catalyst in this creative endeavor, that’s great. But oft-times I see students in a PowerPoint-induced coma, staring at slides and images and thinking that the only thing that matters is memorizing the words on those slides. An overuse of PowerPoint reduces teaching to briefing; the instructor becomes the “sage on the stage” and the students become unthinking zombies. And it can be highly tempting as an instructor to fill that role – just give the students what they want, a simple template to memorize the course material so they can do well on the tests and jump through the hoop that is your course.
But that’s not education: it’s training. Or worse: it’s conditioning.
Real education is not about the technology. It’s about creating a dialogue; it’s about stimulating critical and creative thinking. And to do that, the best “tools” are fully engaged human beings, teachers and students doing an alchemical dance of the mind in the crucible of the classroom.