Riding on the Waves of Power Shift

In “The Judgement of Thamus”, Postman states that the development of every new technology comes with costs and benefits, which is not distributed equally (Postman, 1992, p9). O’Donnell echoes Postman’s assertion in the broadcast “From Papyrus to Cyberspace”: new forms of technology results in the shift of roles and power in the society; people who did not have access to power gain access while other people are excluded from power. (O’Donnell, 1998) The two scholar’s ideas are similar, except the language of Postman was blunter. He refers to these people in the age of new technology as “winners” and “losers” of the power shift.

What is more interesting is Postman’s argument that the “losers have actually cheered the winners” in the times of power shift. (p9) He compares teachers who were enthusiastic about increasing popularity of TV with “turn-of-the-century blacksmith who … believed that their business would be enhanced by the invention of automobile.” (p10) “Ignorant” is how he describes these blacksmiths. Is Postman suggesting that educators are “ignorant” when we promote the use of computers and without recognizing how power may be shifting away from us?

There is no doubt that in the past two decades, a lot of resources have been put into proofing that using computer as a medium can increase the cognitive process in learning. As educators in the 21st century, we often ask ourselves how we can teach better with technology. However, to Postman, we are “dazzled by the wondrous feats of the computer.”( p11) Postman urges us to think about who will gain power and freedom and whose power and freedom will be reduced with the development of computers (p10).

To think about how power and roles might shift with the development of education technology, we can start by thinking about how computers undermine the old idea of school. When studying the integration of computers in schools, Zhao and Frank compared school systems to ecosystem, and new computer uses to invasive species. (Zhao and Frank 2003) This is reasonable because new computer uses, such as the web2.0 tools that are available to teachers, affect every member of the school system. Teachers as the native species in this analogy need to adapt to this new change to survive.

With the invasion of web communication, learners can “chat with text”. This incorporates the best of the world of orality and the world of print. Not only that students can collaborate and develop a sense of social responsibility, but they can do so synchronously or asynchronously, at different places, and with a record to refer to. How does it affect the importance of face to face social interaction when students can communicate in the virtual world?

With the invasion of online courses in Vancouver, for instance, students now have the option to learn from their school teacher, or the teacher online. There is no doubt that online courses are flexible in that it allows students to learn at their own pace. The program also attracts a lot of students from overseas, which brings in revenue for the school board. However, would the availability of online course undermine the importance of face-to-face courses? What is the role of school teachers as more students take online courses? What is the role of a “physical school” when learning and collaboration can happen outside of the school building? How is the development of “virtual school” going to affect the current education system?

Postman uses blunt terminologies to direct educators’ attention to how new computer technology will redefine education. What is mind-boggling is that there is no answer to his questions – Postman states that nobody, not even the inventors can predict how a new technology will be used by the society. We will not have the answer until technology plays out its hand. Postman believes that we need to educate students “in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, so they may become adults who ‘use technology rather than being used by it’”(Neil Postman, 2010) As educators, we need to be mindful of the changes that is taking place, and do not get blinded by the amusement these new tools can bring.

Since computer technology is developing at an exponential rate, the society’s value of the education will only continue to shift. Educators are best to adapt and co-evolve with technology for years to come.


O’Donnell, James J. (1998). The Instability Of The Text. In Avatars of the Word. From Papyrus to Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Up, p 44-49. Retrieved September 25, 2010, from http://www.public.asu.edu/~dgilfill/speakers/odonnell1.html

Postman, N. (n.d.). Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Neil Postman. Retrieved October 3, 2010 from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neil_Postman

Zhao, Y., and K. A. Frank. “Factors Affecting Technology Uses in Schools: An Ecological Perspective.” American Educational Research Journal, 40 (2003): 807-40.

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