25 May 2006

It is not "just a tool"

"Technology is neither dangerous nor irrelevant. It is merely a tool and like all tools has limitations." writes "Pat" in response to my article [Stop Chasing Cheaters] on Inside Higher Ed. But saying that "technology is merely a tool" is to discount the obvious. Every technological change alters how humans perceive the world, and how they function within it. Education must keep up with those changes.

The technology of information and communication obviously creates these changes - the introduction of cave painting, of writing, of books, of photography, of recorded sound, of motion pictures - all fundamentally changed the context for human learning. The first time American students watched film of the Spanish-American War or British students film of the Boer War, the way students learned and understood current events changed forever. The fact that we can actually listen to Theodore Roosevelt speak but not Abraham Lincoln creates dramatic differences in how we might understand these men's political appeal and abilities. The introduction of mailed correspondence, of the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, the television, all altered human communication patterns in vital ways, and thus learning. Technology is not just a tool. Speaking with someone via telephone is different than writing a letter or sending a telegram. Fundamentally different, engaging different centers of the brain. Just as reading a book is different than listening to a troubadour. It is definitely not "all the same."

But all technology alters world views. Before boats humans looked at the sea in one way. In the age of clipper ships they saw it another way, in the age of steam still another. Now that our students know they can fly across it or sail beneath it, it has an entirely different conceptual quality. Trains altered our understanding of distance, cars changed our idea of time and possibility, flight our whole understanding of the world, space flight our understanding of the universe.

The thing that has changed least since the 1870s is the structure of our educational system. Nothing else - not our homes, our kitchens, our conveyances, or science, our businesses, our family life, our leisure time, looks remotely similar to that ancient time, but our classrooms remain the same - students lined up before a teacher - books, paper, and pencils. Could it be time to change?

- Ira Socol
The debate at Inside Higher Ed is wonderful, as are most of the interactive conversations on that site - follow along...


Anonymous said...

Ira, I agree with the substance of your remarks, but I would offer a slightly different take on the "tool" analogy. Martin Heidegger suggests that what tools do is open a world. That is, being human beings capable of mastering tools, we relate to our world--more to the point, we create a world--by virtue of the tools we use. He expands on the analogy between understanding and "grasping" to call this relation to things via tools "handiness." Somethings are "ready to hand," i.e. available for use, while others are "present to hand", i.e. available for inspection. I think this is essentially what you are saying: in important ways our world is defined by the tools we use.

In an interesting aside, vis a vis the internet, there is a fairly well known Heidegger scholar at UC-Berkely, named Hubert Dreyfus who argues quite forcefully against the conception of the "internet" or computer technology as a "tool" in the Heideggarian sense. He has published some papers critical of flight simulators for training pilots. His main worry seems to be related to issue of artificial intelligence and the lack of a real ethical investment in "virtual" reality. But I suspect that he is basing his analysis on what could be shown to be antiquated prejudices, I just don't know that much about the specifics.

Unknown said...

I need to meld Heidegger's theories more deeply into my thoughts. Thanks. I think people really get into trouble on the "internet/tool" issue because they don't really consider the sum total of the technologies coming together. So, yes, the internet is "just a gigantic library," (and a library is a tool), but the nature of how it operates makes it more of a "culture definer." Its very size and instaneity alters how we perceive ourselves, just as the telescope ("just a tool"), or the ability to travel to places where people different than ourselves did (though boats and trains are "just tools" as well).

It is that change in self-perception, in self-understanding, that I believe is what many conservative (educationally, not politically) are resisting, because when self-understanding is dramatically different between student and teacher, that makes things tough.

- Ira