In a Technopoly, no one can hear you think…

“Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong…”

Stephen Stills

The New York Times reported Friday that the Liverpool (NY) school district will begin phasing out student individual use laptop computers beginning next year. Citing problems such as students using their computers to cheat on tests, to surf porn sites, and to hack into local businesses as well as nightmarish problems with network security, laptop hardware/software problems and system crashes caused by large numbers of students surfing the Net when they were supposed to be studying, Liverpool, like an increasing number of school districts, has decided to give up on the grand experiment of having a computer for every child:

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

Despite the fact that many school systems are still adopting laptop computer plans for their students, others who’ve had time to give the programs a reasonable tryout (in most cases 5-7 years) are getting rid of their computers for many of the same reasons that the Liverpool school system is abandoning their program.

Many in education believed that giving students laptops would revolutionize education and make kids better educated and tech savvy all “in one fell swoop” as the Bard would say. How did things go so wrong?

Well, there are at least two ways (I won’t say there aren’t others) we can look at the issue of computers as changers of the way we gain knowledge and experience learning:

One might be what we call the Wired view: Lewis J. Perelman, in a landmark article from Wired Magazine from 1993, proclaimed that “hyper-learning” would eventually outstrip traditional education and that people with computers would become so adept at educating themselves that public schools, for one, would simply atrophy and be replaced by a sort of “educational” marketplace where users would simply educate themselves to prepare for careers they desired, social understanding they craved, and artistic or philosophical depth they sought.

Given that high school and college students use their computers mostly for downloading music, watching videos on sites like YouTube, playing video games, blogging, and visiting social sites like MySpace and Facebook, it may be a while before Perelman’s utopian vision is realized.

The other might be called the Technopoly view: communications professor and culture critic Neil Postman, in his 1993 classic about the dangers of technology run amok, Technopoly, argues that the computer is an insidious destroyer of the institution of education because it seeks to substitute technological solutions for the “human” (read “humane” as in “humanities”) solutions that one learns in school – group learning, social responsibility, and cooperation.

Well, MySpace and Facebook certainly promote social interaction, and blogging allows for the full and free exchange of ideas (though one can argue that many of the opinions blogged should spend more time being cogitated before being expressed), while on-line classrooms make it possible for students to pursue degree programs in innovative (if not always in entirely socially satisfying) ways.

So what do we know about computers and learning?

– We know that kids need guidance using technology as a learning tool.

– We know that if you give students the privilege of their own computers without attaching some serious responsibility for maintenance and care that they’ll be careless and destructive with them – just as they are with state issued textbooks.

– We know that so far, simply handing students computers and expecting them to learn has made little or no difference in their standardized learning progress measurements. (Yet another form of technology….)

– We know that it’s probably too soon to tell how computers will eventually change education.

So we don’t know much – except that assuming that there are quick fixes to the problems with our educational systems is costly, foolish, and stupid.

“Domo arigato, Mister Roboto…”

Dennis DeYoung

Categories: Education

12 replies »

  1. Well, since we’re talking about my dissertation all of a sudden, let me jump in here. It looks like at least one district has found out the if-you-build-it-they-will-come crowd, and it’s a shame that so much energy and time and money had to be wasted to learn what a lot of people could have told you (and did, in fact) years ago. You accurately note the contributions of Postman, and to that scholarly mix I’d add people like Arnold Pacey, whose work points up the importance of understanding technology’s cultural and policy dimensions. It does us no good to make an assumption that computers will be used to educational purposes when we know enough about the culture of teens to understand that they are not wisdom seekers, they’re entertainment seekers.


    An old colleague of mine once noted about his students that we’re told how damned tech-savvy they are. But once you get past downloading music, IMing and surfing porn they’re illiterate. It’s true, too.

    What makes the technophilic impulse so powerful is that it’s deeply embedded – really, at the DNA level – in Millenarian theological impulses that trace back to the Bible and that have played a critical role in the technological project of Western culture for at least the last 1300 years or so. Asking us to doubt that tech can really solve a problem is like asking the tides not to feel the pull of the moon.

    If anybody is really bored drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy of the dissertation. It makes the case in far less exciting fashion….

  2. And calls into question the whole XO / MIT / One-laptop-per-child ideology. Is the West once again foisting more idealistic but flawed ideas onto developing nations before they’ve been properly tested at home. More ammunition against the notion that handing out laptops to kids will unilaterally solve poverty.

  3. Heh – well, the West has a profit motive here. It’s not about whether a laptop per child across Africa is a good idea for Africa, it’s about how damned many laptops that adds up to and how much money that puts in shareholder pockets.

  4. Sam,

    well, iTunes, aim and just make is so damn easy.

    Snark aside, my grandmother IMs me to say hi and my grandfather asked for an mp3 player for Christmas. We’re completely saturated and dependent. Problems with tech? Then more tech to fix the problems, because no tech or less tech is just not an option. My hard drive crashed about a month ago and damn near sent me into academic melt-down mode because I had no computer and the entire frickin’ system is contingent upon being connected. Don’t get me wrong, online catalogs, networked resources and electronically available journal articles are amazingly convenient and cater to my ridiculous 2am researching bursts. But, if the system goes down, I’m stuck.

    A return to pastoral Eden just isn’t going to happen; but I think there are some serious issues if this is supposed to be the way toward a new Jerusalem.

  5. I fix computers for a living, and find it really amusing how people whose machines I am repairing tell me how computer- ‘smart’ their kids/grandkids are. I have to bite my tongue to keep from asking why they didn’t fix the computer problem they created that they’re paying me !$ to repair. I mean, if they’re so smart and all…

    There’s popularity and there’s competency. And the former outnumbers the latter by a huge amount. Or at least huge enough to keep folks like me solvent.

    Properly utilized, a computer is a wonderful tool and resource. Improperly utilized, it’s a waste of time and money- especially in the hands of children.

  6. When I worked in the public sector, I was astounded by two things.

    First, that the policy wonks I worked with and for were aggressively, willfully ignorant about their computers on a fundamental level. I’m talking the kind of people who could quote you chapter and verse on the ins and outs of poverty policy for Alaskan children, but could not send an e-mail attachment without help.

    Second, their ignorance bred a sort of blithe optimism that those of us who WERE computer-literate could accomplish any task, in the most narrow of time frames, no matter how complex. Whether it was resizing images or building entire SQL databases from scratch, it was expected that I (and others like me) would know how to do it. “Oh, you know computers,so you should be able to handle that.”

    When you have that level of Luddite-ism going on, is it any wonder that the succeeding generation’s ability to find prOn and illegal music is somehow looked on as a marvel?

    Technology will always cater to the whims of its users. I don’t expect everyone who has an Internet connection to really understand things like blogging, wikis, file-sharing, etc.,and it doesn’t bother me that many kids use their computers primarily for entertainment–hell, so do I. 😉 The ones who do the innovating and exploring have always been a small, passionate minority in any age, and no matter how fancy the widget, only those with the real smarts will really explore it for all it’s worth.

  7. Jeremie’s use of “Eden” and “new Jerusalem” makes me wonder if he’s actually READ my diss – those are exactly the frames for technophobic/dystopian/Romantic and technophilic/utopian/Enlightenment ideaological strains underpinning it all.

    For better or worse, we are Borg.

  8. And here I thought you’d figured out who I was. Yeah, I read it – since you assigned it. Lots changed since I graduated, including my name. I’ll send you an e-mail off list.

  9. The two views are right on, for the two outside extremes. You will always find people to fit into any learning niche. It’s the majority that we need to focus on.

    There is a third view that I feel is completely lacking a voice. How can you place computers in the hands of children, up the NCLB regulations, reduce funding, require teachers to learn on their own how to use technology in their classrooms, and not have a mess on your hands?

    The laptops and complete training should have been placed in the hands of the educator, and as soon as they proved competent enough to teach with and for technology, then the students needed to get them.

    As a computer teacher, one of the things I learned first is if you give students nothing to do, they do nothing, and do it better than their school work. Plus, they find many tools to “do nothing” with. This happens way too often.

    There is too much to teach them and prepare them to allow “do nothing” time. We run out of time, out of money for appropriate software, out of good navigable learning sites, etc. as it is. My tech support wonders why in the two years at the school, I haven’t put in a repair report. Simple, with the proper preparation, I find that keeping up the pace of the education and keeping them running to keep up alleviates this problem. I will make time for those who cognitively can’t keep up. But for the rest, the race is on – winner gets the best jobs!

    Most teachers are not trained to do this and they don’t know applications like they should. They don’t have the skills to keep their students technologically challenged. This is a shame.

  10. Diane,

    You make a couple of good points here – as I noted in my original piece, one of the things students need most is guidance in using technology to enhance their learning. That guidance can’t occur if teachers aren’t prepared to offer it. But as I told a colleague at a cross-posted site, getting those who are “deciders” to understand that technology in and of itself isn’t a remedy for student learning difficulties seems an unconquerable task. As is too common in our culture, the alluring idea of a “magic bullet” trumps careful consideration of how an socio-ecological change might be affected by Occam’s razor, the Heisenberg principle, or Murphy’s law.

    You identify yourself as a “computer teacher.” I’m not sure if by that you mean you teach WITH technology or if your primary focus is teaching the technology itself (in this case hardware or software use/creation, etc.). If the latter, we may be looking at an “apples and oranges” scenario – teaching with techology has some profound differences from teaching the use of the technology as I’m sure you’d admit. If the former, I’d be interested in hearing more about your methodology (here or elsewhere). As one who teaches WITH technology, (and who has a solid tech understanding and good training – but then I’m a university English professor, so I’ve been privileged), I still find that, while I can engage students successfully, I still have to run a gamut of student misperceptions about what the technology will/won’t do for them, how much time they must devote to the material in the course (which isn’t even a computer issue), even what academic research entails (despite the advantages of the Internet in locating sources).

    So I agree with you that training teachers to use technology to enhance learning is essential for computer enhanced learning to be successful. But I think much, indeed most, of that training has to focus on teaching WITH technology for such programs to be successful.

  11. Hi Jim,
    I teach 7-12, from keyboarding to programming languages. It doesn’t make a difference if you are teaching the technology or teaching with technology. You have to be on top of your game to do either. Kids know when they can slack off and they know when they can’t.

    I agree that teaching with technology is key. Those that can teach with technology can keep students challenged in their own use of technology and on the right track. It can even motivate those who have trouble learning in conventional ways to do well. (i.e. Painfully shy or students who stutter can make MP3 recordings instead of oral presentations). I see a lot of wasted chances to enhance learning because core curriculum teachers just don’t connect to the technology available.