Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Thoughts on a Recent Debate

I am attending a conference in DC run by a group called ISTE, or International Society for Technology in Education. The conference is the National Educational Computing Conference. Logically, the conference is intended to bring together teachers, administrators, computer geeks and the like to discuss various ways of employing computing technology to improve education. The geekspeak and teachspeak are both pretty thick around here.

This morning an Oxford-style debate was held over the resolution "Brick and Mortar Schools are Detrimental to the Future of Education". The primary argument for the resolution centered around the idea that learning needs are so diverse, and the "international community" is so varied, that "confining" a student to the four walls of a classroom limits that student in their ability to face the challenges of a global economy. The opposing side countered with the notion that the issue was not an either-or question. Technology can be brought into the classroom, but the classroom ought not be abandoned, either.

I come down on the side opposing the proposition. I find the reliance on technology as the one key ingredient that will solve all our educational problems to be naïve at best. I am old enough to remember when computers first made their way into the classroom. Politicians left and right demagogued on the issue. Once computers were placed in all the classrooms, it was said, then students would perform better. In short, when all the teachers have computers, all the students will suddenly become smarter, with the wave of the technology fairy's wand.

It didn't happen. In DC, years ago, there was a push to put a computer in each classroom in the DC public school system. That was done. At present, DC schools spend about 13 grand per student, and their graduation rate is down again. Obviously, the issue isn't the computers. Technology is a tool. You could put the best hammer in the world in my hand, but if I can't build, I will still make a hash of whatever nail is before me.

The question is, what is the function of education? If we are preparing our students for a "global economy", in order to make them "more competitive", are we educating them, or are we merely equipping them for a trade? Education, properly speaking, is about cultivating the whole person. As children, we are bundles of nerve impulses, desires and will, with little control. The function of education is to instill in us those principles and controls that help us as adults to contribute to the community. Technology can neither hinder nor help beyond the capacities of the teacher who uses that particular tool.

Another question that arises is "what community"? The proponents of the resolution above would have it that our community is global, that is, the world. This is patently idiotic. Before you sputter into your half-caf, extra foam nonfat soy latte something politically correct that you lifted from a John Lennon song, tell me how your neighbor, Hardeep, is doing in Mumbai. That's the point. You don't know a Hardeep in Mumbai, unless you live there presently. And the unfortunate thing is that we are sacrificing the true notion of community for this artificial one, and we are doing so because it makes us feel more international.

One of the speakers talked about how his experiences in Sri Lanka would never have happened if he were "confined" to a brick and mortar school. Two points. One: a person can go to a brick and mortar school in Sri Lanka, and experience Sri Lankan culture. Two: how many students, thinking themselves "international", will actually experience cultures outside their own directly?

And directly is the point. The big selling point for technology is that we can research and communicate around the world almost instantaneously. So let us take the student out of the traditional school building, and let him learn online. But how much of the international culture will he really experience? Contributing on his wiki, collaborating with his Peruvian 'classmate', will he know what anticuchos taste like? When he chats online through Facebook, or Tweets, will he be able to explain the taste of the salt of the Ionian sea, experienced from the fantail of a ferry? Pictured through the frame of the Skype online chat, will he be able to truly see Angkor Wat? Of course not. The magic of technology does nothing of the kind.

One question that was not addressed was one concerning the effects of technology on social interaction. In a "brick and mortar" institution, students have to deal with each other on a personal level. Actions and opinions have real consequences. Online, we can be who we want, and say what we want with little fear of negative consequences. Take, for example, the case of Mario Armando Lavandeira, better known as Perez Hilton. He recently was faced with a real-world consequence of his blogging. He got punched in the face. When we have no face-to-face interaction, it is harder to experience the consequences of our opinions.

Additionally, there is an ongoing debate on the effects of video-games, especially first person shooter games, on children, and their ability to further interact with people in the room. Now, when your entire school experience is carried out online, at what point do people cease being people, and become avatars? When does school become an extended Second Life session? And when someone has only virtual reality for you, are they a person, less so, or more so? The trouble with virtual walls is that you can pass through them, and if you can't, it doesn't hurt. Reality can hurt.

And I think this is the crux of the matter. As a teacher, I am bound by my vocation to help young people develop into adults who can move and operate in the real world, the world with real consequences. They have to be able to make good decisions based on evidence and judgment. To do that, we need an environment, albeit a safe one, where real-world interaction can take place, and real-world consequences can be experienced and dealt with.

And all of this cannot be done adequately online. We need true connection, true contact, to be able to carry this out. If online contact were a decent substitute, why is it we would rather our relative from around the world come and actually see us? Because we desire the actual contact. Education is carried out in the space of a personal relationship between teacher and student. Technology can be a tool, but it must be only a tool. Not a substitute.