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A Critique of Educational Technologies

By Dr. Douglas Groothuis


 

A Critique of Educational Technologies

 

Too many educational innovations are, ironically, taking teachers out of their own classrooms. The age-old dynamic of a teacher instructing students in a dedicated setting (or often peripatetically, as did Jesus and Socrates) is subtly giving way to diverse “delivery systems,” such as entirely online courses, hybrid courses, and the glamorous world of the MOOC (massive open-source online classes). The justifications for such innovations are many, but criticisms are in order.


Educational technologies need to be critiqued and used wisely, given their ubiquity and much-vaunted status. But before that, we need to think about the goal of teaching and the nature of knowledge. Students need knowledge and knowledge needs students, according to Roger Scruton. The purpose of teaching is to inculcate knowledge that needs to be known. The inherited wisdom of the ages should not be lost through neglect or poor pedagogy—or by students who are not inclined or inspired to learn it. The classic idea of the university is to shape students to have a unified perspective on life, to make them well-rounded and independent thinkers.


Educational Technologies


The values driving the use of technologies at the expense of personal presence are efficiency, the reduction of learning to information acquisition, economic competition, and catering courses to the supposed particular needs of millennials—(roughly, those born between 1980 between 1998 )and Gen Z folks (roughly 1998-2016).


New delivery systems are more efficient, many say. This usually means that they deliver “content” (an impersonal and hollowed-out reference to knowledge) to more people more easily. Thus, if a student takes a course online, she can listen to lectures on her own time. There is no need to show up in a classroom at a set time along with other students and a teacher. Thus efficiency, because it makes the most of limited resources, wins the day. Further, consider MOOCs. In this case, star professors provide the content that various schools offer for credit by managing the course in their own schools. Through a MOOC, a Michael Sandel, for instance, is available to teach on justice to huge numbers of students. You get more bang for the buck by tapping a well-established teacher to teach countless students through technology. If you kept the author of Justice confined to his own physical classroom (no matter how large), too many would go untaught and thus deprived of his knowledge. Physical space is so small and constraining compared to the vast vistas of cyberspace. It only makes sense to maximize the top-of-the line professor’s influence through MOOCs.


While not denying these benefits, something is missing—namely someone who teaches students in real time in a real space dedicated to learning, otherwise known as a classroom. Efficiency must be curbed by pedagogical virtue. When you take a teacher out of a classroom and project his image and words across the country or the world, you inevitably lose the personal presence and the interactivity between teacher and student, as well as between student and student. This rich chemistry (or alchemy) is abolished through efficiency.

But it also involves some risk. While a Sandel lecture may be superb, the on-site classroom may lack his luster and star power. Yet this is no disaster. The relationship between a teacher and students develops over a quarter or semester class. I know from experience that the classroom sometimes sizzles, sometimes simmers, and sometimes stagnates. What matters, though, is the cumulative effect of being there with students, marking their papers, and (perhaps) spending time with them outside of class during office hours. Consistent pedagogical care is the key to student learning and human flourishing in the academy. There should be a strong pastoral element to teaching. The teacher is shepherding the students in knowledge.


Efficiency in reaching the masses with superlative teaching delivered through technology may not be effective for the deeper teaching and learning of the classroom. What is gained in extending the reach of educational content means a loss in personal presence, interaction, and serendipity (more on that below). As Marshall McLuhan observed, communication technologies (particularly electronic ones) extend some elements of humanity while eliminating others. Professor Sandel’s image and voice extend far further through a MOOC than he could possibly manage without it. Yet he himself is absent from all the classrooms or other rooms in which his virtual self is extended. In other words, a trade-off cannot be escaped. If bare efficiency takes over, the trade-off is imminently worth it. If teaching effectiveness—focused on presence, continuity, and creativity—is the prime value, the trade-off is not worth it, despite the hype and hope for the marvelous MOOC.

What drives much of the rush to new delivery systems heavy with technology is a reductionist approach to knowledge and learning. About three decades ago, when communication technologies were flourishing far beyond prediction, we heard much from the likes of Alvin Toffler and John Naisbitt—no longer household names—of the new “information age,” which would transform nearly everything for the better. The first premise of this promise was that most problems—in education and elsewhere—were rooted in ignorance of information. Obviously, if the Internet made information more available to more people at greater speeds, this age-old problem could be solved or at least ameliorated. But more access to more information will not magically solve most problems.

 The second premise was that the exchange of information was medium-neutral: media delivered their content in different modes—the old media in things like newspapers, magazines, books; the new media in things like television, cell phones, mobile computing devices (all now linked to the Internet)—and that it did not matter much how the information was received. One can travel by bus, car, or airplane and arrive at the same destination; it is really a matter of taste.


The view described above is false, if pandemic. Every medium mediates information in a different manner. This is the case even with non-electronic media. Speaking the Lord’s Prayer through a megaphone on a public street is a far cry from speaking it gently in a prayer group. However, the propositional content (or message) is identical. But the changes in communicative effect become far more dramatic when electricity enters the media. As McLuhan’s hyperbolic epigram put it, “the medium is the message.” The first users of the (then amazing) telephone had difficulty adjusting to a voice without a body attached or at least within vocal range. It spooked them, just as voices out of nowhere would spook us all. Through the telephone, the voice was extended, but the personal presence of the speakers was removed, thus eliminating gestures, facial expressions, touching, smell, and more. This subtraction of personality is subversive to full-bodied communication, as anyone who can only speak to a relative through a telephone across the world well knows. But with the living classroom, inhabited with present teachers and attending students gathered in one place for a set amount of time will consider and interact with teaching in a far different manner than those watching a MOOC lecture or any other online medium. Volume is not always intellectually virtuous. In many cases, small is beautiful.


But small may not be lucrative to the school, however pedagogically beautiful it may be. A state university, for example, may draw more students and, thus, more tuition by offering online classes and blended or hybrid courses. In the latter, meeting together in person is blended with online material, such as recorded lectures, threaded discussions, and more.  Moreover, paid faculty may be passed in favor of the live-streamed or recorded expert on any given subject. This is usually justified on the basis of “easier access” to course material. This maneuver may increase student enrollment and limit the school’s expense for faculty.

As Ecclesiastes says, “Money is the answer for everything” (Ecclesiastes 10:19). One cannot pretend that financial pressures will dissipate when an institution authorizes and salutes the virtues of classroom teaching and learning. However, if institutions remember their mission of making men and women better educated and, thus, more prepared to meet the world of thought and work, few corners should be cut. This is because cutting corners may cut off the oxygen of knowledge and skill. Possibly if schools ponder the effects of technologies that save money, they will consider that the quality of education trumps the quantity of income and the number of students who graduate. Historically, the business model has not been the guiding light of learning. Some schools may consider risking financial fatigue or failure rather than selling their souls to success wrongly conceived. To take a cue from Jesus in Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the impartation of knowledge and wisdom, and the rest will follow.” 

 

Teaching Millennials and Younger


Many articles in established educational journals such as The Chronicle of Higher Education as well as breezy and impressionist essays written in popular magazines the likes of Newsweek tell us that millennials and Gen Z people have their own worlds, worlds that educators must understand in relationships, education, business, politics, and everything else. Given my view of human nature as essentially constant throughout history (Genesis 1-2), I am skeptical of generationalism, which is the notion that particular generations possess unique clusters of characteristics that differ widely from other generations. The social critic, Os Guinness, referred to this as “the secular equivalent to astrology.” Age is only one variable for organizing people according to general tendencies. Ethnicity, levels of intelligence, and demographics matter as well. Nonetheless, young people are taken (rightly or wrongly) to be quite different from previous generations, such as Generation X or baby boomers (the moniker that perhaps got this whole sad business started). They are thought to be addicted to cyberspace media (they cannot live without it), to have short attention spans, to lack an ethic of hard work, to care little about deadlines, to be self-centered, to be flippantly relativistic, and to have little ability to read for comprehension and retention. Therefore, given these traits, teaching and assessment must radically change, lest schools be left behind because of a failure to change with the times. In light of this, teaching must use plenty of technology (since the students in question are used to it), avoid lecturing and use assignments customized to their tastes. This means avoiding persuasive essays that require logical analysis, deep reflection, and the mastery of prose. Further, since millennials are very present-oriented, there is no need to delve into the past to trace the history of philosophy, economics, politics, or much else. These young people need material they can directly apply to careers and their personal interests.


Even if there are general traits for millennials or Gen Zers, this should not determine the approach to teaching them. Learning requires focused attention. If they are easily diverted because of their constant multitasking, then they should change. We do not expect that airplane pilots or brain surgeons will be distracted while performing their duties, no matter what “generation” they belong to. They must attend earnestly and focus faithfully on their tasks.  As Blaise Pascal said, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” If so, then how many educational problems stem from millennials (or anyone else) not being able to sit quietly in the classroom? Students qua students need a moral compass themselves. They ought to respect their teacher. This, of course, goes against the thoughtless egalitarianism of popular culture. Students should read the syllabus without multitasking; develop their reading (not scanning) skills; and learn to write at least passable prose with proper documentation.


Teaching


If we have done our exegesis of educational technologies, we can find a wiser voice for teaching. Every teacher needs to find a voice distinctively theirs. Knowledge and skills are imparted through the prism of personality and, more importantly, moral character. Teachers should play to their strengths as well as owning their weaknesses. Live performances, of any kind, are rarely perfect. But just as a good jazz musician recovers from a missed note, and a ballet dancer keeps dancing after a missed step, teachers should keep jamming and dancing.

 

 

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תגובה אחת


I began public school teaching in 1986. Essentially I taught what we now call the millennial generation and stepped out of the public education classroom in 2018. My teaching assignments were mostly (but not exclusively) middle school math. In the last third of my career, I also taught many computing classes and wrote curriculum for online schools. I began writing online curriculum in 1994 to access federal funding provided to onramp onto the Information Superhighway (anyone recall that?) Many qualitative changes occurred but the greatest changes seem to be linked to what researchers call screenagers.


Originally I was drawn to teach because I wanted to teach truth. For the most part, there was a receptive audience. There seemed to be…

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