Postman as soothsayer

After reading the first chapter of Technopoly many readers may view Neil Postman (1992) as a technophobe. He decries the use of computers in education, claims technology redefines words like “freedom” and “history” and that those who are competent with new technologies are granted “undeserved authority and prestige” (no page number listed). Some may claim that Postman has been wrong on all accounts, asserting that computers have improved education, technology has increased the amount of freedom for almost all affected, and that if a person has gained competence in a particular area then they are probably deserving of some sort of authority. A more through examination of Postman’s claims are needed to determine whether he is eerily prescient or truly a technophobe.

Postman (1992) believes that the use of computers in education will only teach “children to operate computerized systems instead of things that are more valuable to children” (no page number listed). He feels that computers are teaching students to operate computers instead of providing them with a quality education. While this view may seem far fetched in 2013, it is possible that there is some validity to Postman’s claim. Lei and Zhou (2007) found that the more time students spent on computers (while in school) the less they gain. The authors noted that there was a certain amount of time (approximately 3 hours or more) that resulted in negative gains for students (as measured by their GPA). It may seem unlikely that students would be spending more than 3 hours on a computer in school, but most school districts are encouraging their schools to invest more in technology and having students spend more time online. Students are also likely to spend some of their leisure time on a computer, resulting in the average student probably spending far more than 3 hours in front of a computer screen. Harter and Harter (2004) also found that, contrary to what some educators believe, the use of technology in class does not increase student scores.

The supporters of technology in education claim that students are entering a different world, a world where the need for knowledge has been superseded by the need for critical thought. It is argued that with the amount of information now available to students it is more important to teach them how to sift through this information instead of teaching them information. While critical thought has an important place in learning, it is not an education. If this were true, then critical thought would have become the focus of education when the first library opened its doors. Instead, the need for students to learn something other than critical thought has endured. Postman (1992) notes that print stresses individualized learning and competition; computers have taken this to a whole new level. In many school districts “individualized learning” is a buzzword, used to imply that students will be learning what they want and when they want. How this will affect education and society remains to be seen.

Another claim made by technophiles is that technology has increased the amount of freedom for nearly everyone on earth. They point to the access most of the population has to an incredible amount of information via the internet. Postman (1992) wonders who will really gain greater power and freedom with the onslaught of technology, and whose power and freedom will be reduced as a result. Students are more likely to rely on the internet for information than their teachers, so while students have gained power the teacher has lost it. The teacher has also lost power as a result of technology in another way; as school districts increase the number of online courses they offer they are able to reduce the number of teachers needed for facilitation. One teacher may not have been able to teach one hundred students in a classroom setting, but they are asked to in an online setting. The term “teaching” is used loosely here, however, as the online teacher often ends up marking much more than teaching. Students are directed to “canned” courses (courses that are already set up online and need little to no outside help to deliver content) and their only interaction with the teacher is when they submit their assignments.

Postman (1992) states that those who become skilled in the use or knowledge of a new technology become an “elite group” with “undeserved authority and prestige” (no page number listed). He believes that these groups form a conspiracy against those who do not posses this knowledge and will wield power over them. Some may claim that these elite groups have earned their skill or knowledge and thus are deserving of their authority. Postman, however, worries that this is just another way to separate winners and losers.

Although technology has been championed as a cure-all ready to solve the woes of education, the environment, healthcare, and the economy, Postman (1992) believes it may affect our world negatively. He is concerned that concepts like knowledge and freedom are being irretrievably altered (and not for the better). Postman notes how teachers are rapidly becoming the “losers”, cheering on their own demise without even realizing it. There is a power shift occurring and teachers are the ones losing power; where this balance of power is shifting is still unknown. Although Postman may seem like a technophobe, it can be argued that he has shown remarkable foresight. Nowhere is this more evident than when he wonders if the computer will “raise egocentrism to a virtue” (no page number listed).

Now how is it he knew about Twitter 14 years before it came into existence?

Harter, C. & Harter, J. (2004). Teaching with Technology: Does Access to Computer Technology Increase Student Achievement? Eastern Economic Journal, 30, 507 – 514.

Lei, J. & Zhao, Y. (2007). Technology uses and student achievement: A longitudinal study. Computers and Education, 49, 284 – 296.

Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly. New York: Vintage Books. Retrieved from http://books.google.ca/books

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2 Responses to

  1. lindsayn says:

    Hi Andrew,
    Your commentary presented an interesting perspective, by analyzing whether Postman is, in fact, a technophile. I think your post highlights the argument that text is less effective for learning than oral discourse, as readers cannot interact with authors and obtain information from them outside of their written work. Asking Postman whether he is a technophile would effectively help clarify his viewpoint.

    Lindsay

  2. grants says:

    Hi Andrew,
    I enjoyed reading your perspective on the Postman chapter. Although, I found him to be overly negative, he has some legitimate concerns regarding how technology is used in classrooms and what students are learning with it.

    I was interested to read about the inverse relationship between time spent on computer and GPA. Not very encouraging for school boards who are investing millions of dollars in educational technology. The studies you quote indicate that results can be positive if computers are used in moderation, but some institutions use them to excess, as if they replace and improve on all traditional methods of instruction.

    Grant

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