In Technopoly, Postman (1992) urged his readers to think about both the benefits and detriments of technology. However, he also admitted that the mysterious nature of technology once released into society makes the benefits and detriments difficult to predict. Nonetheless, Postman told his readers that all technology creates winners and losers.
While I do not think it is possible to determine who the individual winners are, I think it is possible to figure out a general characteristic of the winners. By looking at the digital divide, the environmental impact of technology, and corporation-owned educational technology, I will argue that the winners are often the wealthy.
Despite Postman’s assertion that teaching students how to use computers is not a valuable use of their time (1992), computer technology, when used for pedagogically sound purposes, can be used to enhance learning. For instance, asynchronous communication software encourages higher quality participation from a larger amount of students than in a face-to-face setting (English, 2007; McLoughlin & Mynard, 2009). As well, Wikis facilitate knowledge-building and collaboration (Beasley-Murray, 2008; Bruns & Humphreys, 2005; Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1994). Additionally, using concept map software is much easier than drawing concept maps by hand, and it aids students’ metacognition of their learning (Novak, 1998).
Unfortunately, the students are not benefiting equally. In what has been called the “digital divide”, the students from wealthier schools and school districts are benefiting more than those from poorer districts (Mccollum, 2011; Morriss, 2011). Even when schools from poorer districts have access to technology, many of the students don’t have access to, and thus cannot benefit from, computers at home (Mccollum). Wealthier schools can afford more computers and software, and better professional development for teachers to use those computers (Mccollum). Also, Reinhart, Thomas, and Toriskie (2011) found that students from wealthier social economic areas tend to use internet communication technology to support higher-order thinking and to produce information, whereas students from poorer areas tend to use the technology for basic, remedial thinking and to consume information. Reinhart, et al. attributed this to the wealthier districts’ and schools’ ability to hire technology facilitators to train teachers to use technology to enhance teaching and learning.
The poor are not losing out only in our own countries, but in other countries as well. Electronic waste (e-waste) from educational technology is often shipped to developing Asian and African countries where the environmental laws are less strict and the workers are cheaper to pay (Terada, 2012). In fact, in the Western United States, anywhere from 50% to 80% of e-waste is exported (Terada). This e-waste, whether put in a landfill or disguised as being recycled, creates a pileup of materials, such as mercury and lead, in the developing countries that accept the waste (Terada). The result is a toxic environment that is dangerous to the workers who take apart the waste, to the people living in the surrounding area, and to the environment as a whole (Terada).
For now the winners are the affluent countries that purchase the electronics and benefit from their educational use. However, with the downsides mentioned above, it is hard to say that the affluent countries will remain winners forever. Damage to the environment and mistreatment of people has a way of affecting all of us eventually.
Corporation-Owned Educational Technology
Corporations that supply educational technology are also emerging as winners. Both Google and Microsoft offer a suite of educational apps that are free for K-12 schools (Dessoff, 2010). Among other things, they offer e-mail clients, calendars, and synchronous and asynchronous communication and writing software. Blackboard is another big name in educational technology. Blackboard offers course management systems (CMS) that are especially useful for distance education courses (Caplow, 2006). Blackboard’s CMSs offer everything that Google and Microsoft offer as well as a wide range of additional features used for such things as grading, assignment submission, and administration of courses. Of course there are many other businesses invested in educational technology as well.
However, often these businesses are not invested solely for the good of education. Blackboard charges for the use of its CMS, and, thus, profits whenever schools purchase it. As well, Google Apps’ education manager makes it quite clear that Google is providing its free services to K-12 schools because it wants the students be become used to Google and turn into lifelong Google users (Dessoff, 2010).
The appropriateness of corporate involvement in schools is an ethical debate that has extended for almost 100 years (Johnson, 2010), so the debate about whether schools and students are winners or losers is best left for another essay. Nonetheless, businesses and corporations are benefiting from educational technology and, therefore, are winners.
Postman (1992) said that technology’s winners and losers cannot be predicted. To a degree, he is right. It would be difficult to predict exactly which business or individual would benefit the most. Yet, on a more general level, as a look into the digital divide, environmental impacts, and corporation-owned educational technology shows, the winners tend to be those who are wealthier.
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