Musings about Education and Technology: A New Frontier?
Lately there have been a host of pieces in the media challenging the current conception of ‘school’ (like this one on badges vs grades) and asking if we can use technology (specifically online media) to radically reshape education. (Like this one). New media has a great deal of potential – but also challenges for good use.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the challenges of using new media, and the Internet, to teach well (and not just differently):
1. The extensive availability of information today is a problem as much as it is an opportunity. Too-quick gratification of curiosity (by the empty intellectual calories of whatever’s served up on the first page of Google search results) can dull the appetite for sustained engagement with a topic.
2. There is a vast amount of incorrect, trivial, or simply irrelevant information available on any given topic. One of the roles of a teacher is to be a content curator and to teach students how to discern what is important and what is not
3. We shouldn’t toss the lecture baby out with the bathwater. Lectures are more than the presentation of data. A good lecturer makes connections among different pieces of information and creates an integrated whole, allowing the students to grasp the significance of the data and to begin to move on to make their own connections.
4. Humans are wired to learn from humans. As incarnational beings, we need to interact with other human beings in order to learn most fully. We need to relate.
5. Education means that we actually know things, not just know how to find out about them. A foundation of information in memory is necessary to make the intellectual connections in real-time that are part of critical thinking and creativity. One can’t make connections without the pieces at hand. We need teachers who can help us know what information is essential to learn, and keep us to task in learning it.
I think that the challenge of online education today is, in part, to make use of the technology, the information, and the social networks in such a way as to build on that which is good in traditional modes of education. To do that, we have to look at the very best forms of traditional education and not be dazzled by the glamour of technology for its own sake. We must resist both nostalgia and dazzle. Merely giving a student a tablet, or enabling some high-tech interactive software, cannot replace hard work and the development of the character of a good student (persistence, curiosity, diligence, attention to detail, memory, the willingness to take on intellectual challenges, tolerance for failure). Nor can access to information replace knowing.
It’s going to be interesting – for instance, a few years ago if I’d been asked about the future of education with regard to the Internet, I’d have thought that the availability of information would be important, but I would not have anticipated what I think is one of the best and most powerful educative elements of the new technological environment: the potential for connection and collaboration through social media.
If the new technology moves us toward valuing what students know and can do instead of just tallying how many years students have sat in a classroom chair, that would be good. I also would be glad if the new technology makes mentoring, apprenticeship, and discipleship models more central to the process of education.