Technology, Education, and the Chalkboard: Braking Technology before Technology Breaks Learning

I've been thinking a bit more about Mark Edmundson’s piece in the NYT: "The Trouble With Online Education" 

Some have jumped on Edmundson for too-quickly painting technology with the same broad brush and then flushing the whole lot down the toilet. But I think what he’s offering is not a standard “proof” against technology; rather, it is a “cry of conscience.” That kind of statement requires a different form of understanding, and it’s questionable as to whether those besotted with technophilia can demonstrate the capacity for such understanding.

We have a problem that transcends both the university and learning technology, which is the way what counts as "culture" has come to be mixed up with the means provided by technology. The issue can still be largely framed in McLuhan’s problematic--the “medium has become the message”--but what this problematic means to us requires us to spell it out, wrestle with it, debate it. We start to spell it out by admitting that we are increasingly a device culture; we arrange our lives and our devices (and our corn-syrup-based-foods!) to provide us with quick responses which quickly die away. As a colleague would put it, we want our dopamine fix, engendered by every next move on the video game, every next tweet.  (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20545602 has some nice data on dopamine and video games) 

This cultural preoccupation with devices, with technology, is part of a larger deterioration of meaning, what Nick Carr calls "the shallows" or what Albert Borgmann calls a disregard for “focal things and practices.”  And when universities become businesses, and become consumer-driven, they seek to give students what they want, immediately, and that gives profit-motivated administrators and presidents what they want, immediately. How’s the bottom line? Good? Well, then all is right at the U. In this narrow utilitarian dystopia, “efficiency is maximized”: students get their dopamine and bottom-line-watchers get their dopamine (and a pat on the back from the business magnates on the Board of Regents and the Chamber of Commerce). But this scenario misdescribes what universities are supposed to be doing. Universities are dedicated to a much deeper set of human purposes over much longer time frames; they're devoted to knowledge and the genuine growth of individuals. They’re meant to produce citizens capable healing ills which are not just economic and creating goods on which no price tag can be affixed.

Technology need not frustrate these goals, but we need to be very careful in how we go about it. What does “being careful” mean?  It means at least the following: when the larger culture seems confused about why kids should go to college at all (especially in an economy that's not supporting their loans or creating jobs for them) it's doubly confusing as to what technology is supposed to be doing. Technology helps us be more effective and efficient--but for what larger end? Technology cannot supply the ends, but in a culture turning away from ends-thinking, both technologists and consumers mistakenly think that technology can supply the ends--or at least make us more efficient while we’re getting around to talking about ends. But this is a blunder because every new enthusiasm about technology is also, in part, a choice to divide our attention away away from hard thinking about values, ends. 
Those iPads and magic Google glasses and electric cars are awfully shiny and cool. Distractingly cool. Conversation stalls because the implicit promise of every new iteration is this: “The future is here now, so why waste time debating about it?” In short, we’re “conquered by cool,” to re-purpose a Thomas Frank book title, and we’re too addicted to notice that our mouths are agape, brains spinning frictionlessly. 

Do I hate Powerpoint? No. Am I a Luddite? No. Whence the chalk-board? There may yet be a place for chalkboards, some of the time. I love my iPad. I love the web. I love chalkboards, too. Why? Because sometimes I don't know what to say and I need a silent, blank, board to start with; sometimes I don't want content foisted upon me all at once. Sometimes, I like to not worry about connectivity and battery life. 

There's something about the simple self-reliance which a chalkboard calls for--it's like taking a walk with no iPod. Just me and my thoughts and the chance encounters with nature and other people. Existential confrontations with being, not with "content." And typically something really cool emerges from these "low tech" encounters that could not happen with more technology present. We are forced to pause for longer than we've become comfortable pausing, but the extra wait pulls us out of our habits (for speed, visual flash, dopamine) and we wind up creating something about which we can say, "That's mine. I made that." And what we’re making, after all, is us. We are becoming human.

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