I first came across the writings of Neil Postman in the late 90’s—before I decided to return to school, and just before I owned my first computer. Since then, I have spent a good deal of my time in academic environments where I have observed the steady proliferation of technology in classroom situations. In my first year at university, there were a couple of laptops in the classroom, my second year a few more, and this past year at Regent a friend and I estimated that in a class of 130 people, somewhere between 40-50% of the students were using laptops—myself, by this time, included.
As this technology has become more and more ubiquitous, I have also noticed instructors increasingly lamenting how dependent students are on their computers, and how their ability to do serious research and think critically has declined. On several of my syllabi in university, it was explicitly stated that x number of sources had to be real books or journal articles—like with paper and bindings and stuff—not websites. “Research,” for many, now involves little more than plunking a few words into a search engine (this seems to have been Richard Dawkins’ strategy in his latest book, but I digress…)
In light of all this, this article caught my eye last week. The long and the short of it is that some schools in the United States are abandoning the usage of laptops in the classroom because they’re not having any impact on student performance or contributing positively to the educational experience. I’ll highlight a few quotes:
After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement—none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.
The school also repeatedly upgraded its online security to block access to sites for pornography, games and instant messaging — which some students said they had used to cheat on tests.
Such disappointments are the latest example of how technology is often embraced by philanthropists and political leaders as a quick fix, only to leave teachers flummoxed about how best to integrate the new gadgets into curriculums. Last month, the United States Department of Education released a study showing no difference in academic achievement between students who used educational software programs for math and reading and those who did not.
And finally, from Tom McCarthy, an eleventh-grade history teacher from the school in Liverpool mentioned above:
The art of thinking is being lost…because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.
It’s interesting to consider all of this in light of what Neil Postman was saying fifteen years ago about the uncritical embrace of technology as the solution to all human problems. Postman had a name for this: technopoly (also, the title of his book). A final quote:
All of this has called into being a new world….It is a world in which the idea of human progress…has been replaced by the idea of technological progress. The aim is not to reduce ignorance, superstition, and suffering but to accommodate ourselves to the requirements of new technologies….We are a culture consuming itself with information, and many of us do not even wonder how to control the process….Technopoly is a state of culture. It is also a state of mind. It consists in the deification of technology, which means that the culture seeks its authorization in technology, finds its satisfaction in technology, and takes its orders from technology.
Maybe, fifteen years later, we’re starting to see that this grumpy old Luddite may have been on to something.