Community, Contemplation, and Computers: The Role of Technology in Education

 
 

In order to lead students to wisdom, schools must be prepared to integrate technology in the classroom with moderation when it helps to facilitate real, authentic engagement, and they must be willing to set it aside when it pulls students away from such engagement.

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On February 9, 2010, Oprah Winfrey featured a story profiling the Dominican Sisters of Ann Arbor, Michigan. After the show aired, Oprah stayed on set with the sisters to discuss the importance of silence and contemplation in a human being’s life. Oprah asked, “What happens to a world that never takes time to be silent, to look inward?” She later mused, “We are raising an entire generation of people completely disconnected from themselves. What does that mean for our society?”

The sisters, who are teachers, admitted that this is one of the biggest challenges they face, because they understand their roles as educators to be geared toward the formation of the interior lives of their students. It is a challenge that they are intentionally meeting head-on, as they structure their classrooms around authentic human flourishing.

One sister commented,

we put them in an environment in the classroom, have them have relationships, friendships … teach them how to talk to one another. We have to create that forum during the school day, during those seven hours when we have them, and give them those opportunities.

This view of education, one that is rooted in the intentional, still, and quiet pursuit of truth alongside peers and under the guidance of a teacher, has significant competition—digital competition, with LED screens, educational apps, and federal backing. Many American schools, both public and private, are moving forward with “1:1 programs” designed to put personal electronic devices into the hands of every student, including laptops, e-readers, and iPads. These programs signal more than a change in pedagogy; they suggest a change in the very meaning and nature of education itself.

Last June, the Obama Administration launched a program called the ConnectED Initiative for K-12 schools, with the goal of providing wireless internet access for 99 percent of American students. It also encouraged local educational leaders in school districts to purchase personal devices for students and to increase funding so that teachers could be sufficiently trained in these tools. Teachers also were encouraged to use more computer-based assessments rather than ones administered on paper. According to the White House:

We must make our schools an integral part of the broadband and technology transformation – particularly when that same technology can be harnessed to drive empowered, more personalized learning. From digital textbooks that help students visualize and interact with complex concepts, to apps and platforms that adapt to the level of individual student knowledge and help teachers know precisely which lessons or activities are working, this technology is real, it is available, and its capacity to improve education is profound. For the better part of the 20th century the United States led the world in educational achievement and attainment. But the United States is now falling behind. Many of our competitors are moving forward with aggressive investments in digital learning and technology education. The durability of American competitiveness will be tied to our ability to produce graduates with the skills the economy demands.

Those who embrace the White House’s view of education share three main presumptions:

1) Education should be highly individualized;

2) Digital interaction with concepts and ideas is an effective and desirable means of learning;

3) Education should be primarily geared toward helping produce students with skills for the workplace.

Educators who are interested in integrating more technology into their school environment should consider some potential challenges posed by these three presumptions. Instead of getting devices into the hands of every student, a more discerning integration of technology in the learning process should be considered.

Individualization

Education should be personalized. Proponents of Montessori and homeschooling programs have been championing this idea for years: children learn at different paces and have different strengths and interests, so programs that help accelerate growth and curiosity should be tailored to individual needs. But in the digital age, the Obama administration’s concern for “highly personalized education” will really become “highly individualized education.” The introduction of a screen into any setting (social, professional, or otherwise) inherently changes the landscape it enters. Relationships alter when cell phones or electronic devices appear. Barring an emergency, when someone chooses to engage their virtual friends or acquaintances, they implicitly send a message to the person in front of them: you have become secondarily important to me.

It is difficult enough in this culture to teach students the value of listening to an opinion, reading a text, or looking at an argument that they might not agree with or that is difficult to comprehend. Patience, struggle, and interior wrestling are all part of the process of learning. This is, after all, the goal of education: to provide a student with an opportunity to encounter an idea, text, or person that changes his very life. With the introduction of a device into students’ hands, whether educators intend to or not, they wind up saying, “Here, if you are not interested in what I am saying, feel free to check out.”

The very design of these technologies is to multitask, not to concentrate, analyze, contemplate, or wonder. When a teacher is lecturing, students can easily disengage, looking at other apps (some for school and others surely for entertainment), perusing websites, and checking email. Schools that value teachers’ wisdom, expertise, and guidance will wind up undermining their work by asking them not only to deliver meaningful content but to monitor students’ attention constantly. When competing for attention with a device, teachers are implicitly asked to become entertainers. After all, White House officials promise, “Fully digitized classrooms will prevent students from being bored.”

Before the introduction of 1:1 programs, there was already a shift in the way teachers were viewed in American schools. In The Republic of Noise: The Loss of Silence and Solitude in Schools and Culture, Diana Senechal points out that schools have transitioned to a “workshop model” in which the teacher is not to be a “sage on the stage,” but a “guide on the side.” Instead of learning from teachers, students are to learn from each other, with the teacher there merely to facilitate the process.

Students surely learn from one another’s insights, but do teachers have value other than their ability to deliver directions? Is education merely an exchange of ideas or information, or does it involve an exchange of persons, too? Students don’t remember teachers who were “guides on the side.” They remember teachers who taught them about life by sharing their experiences, interests, and passion for their subject.

But even schools that champion the collaborative model will suffer with the introduction of 1:1 programs. If everything students need to learn is available through their devices, communal learning will go by the wayside. If schools find the social aspect of education important, then they will need to find a way to articulate why all classes should not be moved online and what value lies in coming together in pursuit of truth.

The Quality of Digital Learning

Though it is becoming clear that technology is changing the way we learn, it is not yet clear that it is improving it. In a November 2013 Scientific American article, Ferris Jabr explored the difference between reading on electronic tablets and reading the printed word. Jabr notes,

Despite the increasingly user-friendly and popular technology, most studies published since the early 1990s confirm earlier conclusions; paper still has advantages over screens as a reading medium.

One of those advantages includes the material (weight, size, and feel) of paper itself. According to Jabr, when people read, they create a mental landscape of the text, and so can recall a particular passage based on where it was “located.”

Moreover, the author cites studies from Norway that classified reading on electronic devices as exhausting. Though manufacturers are improving the quality of lighting on screens, it is not clear that sustained reading on these devices is preferable over paper. In an experiment in Sweden, people who took a reading comprehension test on a computer screen did worse and reported higher levels of stress and fatigue than people who took the same assessment on paper. Researchers also concluded from that experiment that the process of scrolling seems to have negative effects on memory and comprehension, because it requires that a reader “consciously focus on both the text and how he is moving it.”

Additionally, those interactive links and apps celebrated by the ConnectED initiative, which are embedded in certain texts on e-readers, serve more to distract than enhance retention. A 2012 study at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York City examined how children remembered more details from books they read on paper than ones in e-books with animation, videos, and games. The study concluded that the “bells and whistles deflected attention away from the narrative to the device itself.”

Another casualty of the integration of 1:1 programs in schools will be the quality of students’ writing. Apart from laptops, many electronic devices that are being used for educational purposes are not manufactured for word processing. In addition, with the development of the “auto-correct” feature on many products, students have no pressing need to learn spelling or grammar. The language that they use in text messages is already making its way into academic papers; it is hard to imagine that if they are writing one way on a device outside of school, they will suddenly be able to perfect the art of writing when they bring the very same device into the classroom.

As schools move toward requiring students to take notes on these devices, they risk bypassing a crucial step in the learning process—writing down what they see or hear. Research suggests that the integration of visual, cognitive, motor, and perceptive skills in the process of writing is linked not only to memorization and recall but to learning and understanding. On many of these educational tools, there are often only simulated keyboards, leaving no tactile stimulation for the writer. Moreover, note-taking becomes merely recording someone else, instead of integrating what is said, seen, or heard in one’s own words. Ultimately, this means that learning is not really taking place. When you can take pictures of lecture notes or record the teacher, why pay close attention in the first place?

The End of Education

The third presumption, that the ultimate goal of education is to produce efficient and skilled persons for the workforce, has already been challenged by those concerned with the contours and scope of the Common Core. To be sure, we need students to know how to use technology for purposes of employment. But it is not as if our children are unfamiliar with these technologies outside of school. According to a 2009 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, students from ages eight to eighteen devote an average of seven hours and thirty-eight minutes a day to the use of media, much of which is spent on two or more devices at once.

Our children are adept at using iPhones and iPads; Apple prides itself on how “intuitive” their products are. The job of schools is not to teach students how to use them. The job of schools is to produce thoughtful, intelligent, and virtuous students who will enrich the culture (including the economy) with thoughtful, intelligent, and virtuous contributions. To quote Stratford Caldecott, author of Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education:

Most of us are prepared to let developments in science and technology dictate the shape of the future. We see our job as being merely to hang on tight, to survive, and maybe take whatever advantages are offered us along the way. But in the process … we are becoming less than human ourselves. We are reduced to being consumers and producers, producing merely in order to consume. We have more and more stuff, but the world seems thinner and less substantial, and our own souls also. Education is our path to true humanity and wisdom.

In order to lead students to wisdom, schools must be prepared to integrate technology in the classroom with moderation when it helps to facilitate real, authentic engagement, and they must be willing to set it aside when it pulls students away from it. If we do not have educators who are willing to create space for silence and solitude, we are about to find out what happens to a generation of children who are perpetually plugged in, but totally disconnected from themselves and each other.

Elise Italiano teaches bioethics in Washington, DC, and is a contributor to Breaking Through: Catholic Women Speak for Themselves, edited by Helen Alvaré.

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