As technology changes, so do our lives. It is obvious technology changes the way we communicate, but it is also changing our culture in ways we might not realize. We are constantly making a bargain of some sort because for the gains we make with new technologies, there are usually losses that go along with them (O´Donnell, 1999). In the last 100 years, not too many changes have happened in secondary education, but new technologies are starting to force society to re-examine the purpose and goals of education. Further to this, Neil Postman challenges us to explore the ways digital technology ¨alter[s] our conception of learning and … undermines the old idea of school¨ and in doing so, highlights the changing role of teachers (1992, p. 6).
In the last few years it has become common to question the purpose of the modern education system, and yet few significant changes have actually been made. As Thomas Kuhn would say, we in a ¨paradigm shift¨ and with the rate of technology change these days, it is impossible to predict when (or, if) the shift will actually end. We are trying to hold on to old values, but sometimes new technologies make it difficult to justify holding on. Postman discusses an important disconnect with regards to this paradigm shift:
On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other, there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response (1992, p.5).
This disconnect between the world of television, video games, and the internet and the world of our school system is what makes it harder and harder to justify just sticking to the ¨old idea of school¨ Postman refers to. How can we prepare students for the future if we aren´t even preparing them for the interactions they have with media on a daily basis? This is where technology comes into the picture.
The attempt to change this disconnect between the print-based classroom/educational system and the rich media-based world in which we live has been made in many schools through the incorporation of digital technology in the classroom. Many schools have started one to one programs, where every student has access to their own laptop or tablet during their classes. Now students have access to many forms of information, not just their textbooks. While this has many obvious benefits such as customization for different learning styles, speeds, and interests; there are also problems that one cannot ignore. According to Postman, one of these issues is that
in introducing the personal computer to the classroom, we shall be breaking a four-hundred-year-old truce between the gregariousness and openness fostered by orality and the introspection and isolation fostered by the printed word…Over four centuries, teachers, while emphasizing print, have allowed orality its place in the classroom, and have therefore achieved a kind of pedagogical peace between these two forms of learning, so that what is valuable in each can be maximized. Now comes the computer, carrying anew the banner of private learning and individual problem-solving (1992, pp. 5-6).
By bringing personal computers into the classroom, teachers are separating the community into separate screens. Class discussions have become print-based, rather than oral and at this point it is unclear what the consequences of this may be. Students become isolated from each other and while there are ways to use digital technology in collaborative oral activities such as podcasting and video production, the system itself is still print focused. End of school exams are still print-based and focused on reading, writing and arithmetic. It is unclear at this point if digital technology will allow teachers to continue to support the oral tradition unofficially, or if it will eventually eliminate all orality from schools. There is an argument that the computers allow students who are shy to participate in class more fully, but isn´t part of education to help students develop as individuals? Being able to talk to a group of peers without being shy is an important life skill; that is, unless society places more value on the printed word than orality. Education is trapped between two different worlds.
Another problem with this access to technology in the classroom is that it puts into the question the entire notion of knowledge and, in doing so, it challenges teachers´s roles and the role of education itself. What is the point of testing students on names and dates if they can find that information on a computer? Postman argues that ¨technology… redefines “freedom,” “truth,” “intelligence,” “fact,” “wisdom,” “memory,” “history”—all the words we live by¨ (1992, p.2) and if this is the case, then what becomes the purpose of education? If all one has to do is ¨google it¨, is it worth teaching in schools? Some would argue that this makes the role of teachers even more important (which is an area that Postman overlooks in his decidedly pessimistic view of technology) as now education is responsible for helping future generations deal with larger and larger amounts of informations and turning it into something meaningful. Is the information found on Google actually knowledge, or just information (PBS, 2013)? And what is the difference?
While teachers may no longer be the only authority in a classroom, that does not make them or their role any less valuable. Teachers are still responsible for educating students on how to be productive members of society, no matter what the culture dictates that to mean. The environment in which they work and the materials in which they use may constantly change, but their role will always exist and be important.
O’Donnell. (1999). From papyrus to cyberspace [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.cambridgeforum.org
PBS Idea Channel. (2013, August 21) Is Google Knowledge? [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aCwLQrJz4Bo
Postman, N. (1992). Technopoly. New York: Vintage Books.
The RSA. (2010, October 14). RSA Animate – Changing Education Paradigms [YouTube video]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDZFcDGpL4U