George Lucas Educational Foundation

The double edge sword of technology

The double edge sword of technology

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Teachers and public education are being criticized for low reading, writing, math and science scores. Personally, I think there’s a war on public education by those wanting “vouchers” and charters. And they keep beating us over the head with low test scores. There have always been things that negatively impacted the readiness, willingness and ability of kids to learn, and our ability to teach them. It usually comes down to them generating what I like to call a dysfunctional amount of emotion in response to their life events, in and outside the classroom, and what they do because of that, or to deal with it and get relief from it. For example, we have kids with anger problems, anxiety disorders, who suffer from depression, and low self-esteem, which is really just shame about the past and present and anxiety about the future because of it, and others who are too stressed out. We have kids who smoke, drink, use drugs, eat too much, starve themselves, cut themselves, bully others, are violent, who shut down and refuse to work, refuse to come to school, drop out, and even take their own lives. People start and continue to do anything because it serves a purpose, including engaging in unhealthy, self-defeating behavior. A large part of what gives purpose to such behavior is that they generate a dysfunctional amount of emotion. Things like alcohol and drugs have always allowed people to withdraw from and avoid unpleasantness, and get relief from feelings that so often go with such things. Now we have a huge wave of virtual reality that does the same thing. It’s no surprise that we hear talk of addictions to video games, or even online porn. But there’s something else going on, and it has to do with technology, which I’ve always viewed as a double-edged sword. And I think I’ve found a way to put that into words. For all it’s good points, technology has become like the equivalent of junk food for the palate, when you think about it. The food industry creates all kinds of processed food stuffs, most of which sound like chemistry experiments when you read the labels, full of sugar, fat, and salt that cater to human taste buds to make people crave them and want more, so the producers can profit. The same is going on with technology, internet, porn, etc. Those industries are create products, faster than ever, that cater to the minds "taste buds", like the desire for stimulation, convenience, comfort, pleasure, and even sex, and sometimes good old escape, all to make more profit. And people gobble it all up, and can't get enough of it. They develop a tolerance for stimulation, convenience, comfort, and pleasure like they do alcohol and drugs, requiring ever more to give them the same effect they got before. And what happens to people with all that stuff is analogous to people becoming obese from all the junk food out there that they consume as well. Some people have problems with both. You hear teachers say all the time, “Kids just don’t want to do anything” or “Everything has to be fun or they won’t do it”. Kids whine about being bored all the time. I can’t help but think all this “stuff” is eroding the work ethic for one, and second, raising the bar for stimulation so high that very little that we would normally do in classrooms gets a rise out of them anymore. And we’re told we must engage the learner, or motivate kids to want to learn. There’s an old saying that speaks to the limit of this: “You can lead horses to water, but you can’t make them drink”. And if a country (US) where we promote freedom, capitalism, and profit, and people resent government intervention, I'm not sure what you're going to do to address what's happening. Just look at the backlash when the city of New York set a ban on sugary soft drinks over 16 ounces. It may just have to play itself out. I also think about all that Piaget stuff we had to read about in college in ed psych classes. Don’t remember it all, and read it’s not taken as the gospel it once was considered. However, when I hear about schools giving notepads to kindergarteners, and talking about not even teaching printing or cursive anymore, I keep recalling something about the “concrete operations” stage. I can’t help but wonder if we’re encouraging, or even forcing them to forego that stage and get to abstract thinking sooner, at their peril and ours. I’ve always wondered about that even before when I’d ask high school students a simple math problem and they all immediately reached for their calculators instead of doing it in their head. I don’t know how this technology revolution is going to play out. For people like many of us who were educated in more traditional ways, all this new technology are great tools. I still remember typing “dittos” on manual typewriters, using razor blades to correct mistakes on them, running them off by hand, and getting high from the fumes. And to think white out was a big technological advance back then. I just remember something my drivers ed teacher always said, “When in doubt, go slow”. Problem is, too many others are either not seeing some of the potential downfalls of all this new technology, largely because they’re so caught up in the novelty, excitement, and new comfort, convenience and pleasure it brings. Maybe all the interest in the next product, and people sleeping out in the rain to be in line for the first of the next innovation is not a good thing.

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Keith Heggart's picture
Keith Heggart
High School Teacher from Sydney, Australia

Hi Ray,
This is a powerful and interesting piece of writing, and thank you for sharing your thoughts about education and technology. I spend a lot of time working with other teachers about what we've come to call 'technology integration' and your concerns are ones that I hear regularly from teachers -and to be honest, many people think that these concerns

I do have a couple of comments that I think is important to make, however: firstly, 'technology', in the truest sense of the word, has been around for as long as human beings have been making tools to make their work a little bit easier. The concerns you make about people losing core skills because of technology were raised when people started writing things down (educators were concerned people's memories would fail them) and when people started using ball point pens instead of fountain pens. That's not to dismiss your concerns, but merely to acknowledge that they have a longer history than you might suppose.

Secondly, technology, in and of itself, is neutral. I think a more important discussion to have is based on the question, 'In what ways do we use technology in educational situations to improve learning outcomes for our students?' And in this instance, I agree with you about going slow - we should adopt rigorously tested, research-based approaches to educational technology. Some research that I've found useful is Ruben Puentedura and the SAMR model.

Finally, you draw a link between new products and capitalism and education. This, too, is an important point. I don't have an answer, really, but I do think that this concept should be looked at as part of the wider 'internet movement'. After all, while new products and apps may be available and costing people money, there is also another side of the argument based on open source, free to use and modify tools. After all, 20 years ago not everyone could afford a set of encyclopedias... Now, though, there are plenty of free online ones. The trick, as I'm sure you're aware, is teaching students to critically examine information they find - but I personally think that's a good thing.

Ray Mathis's picture
Ray Mathis
Retired Health Ed Teacher certified in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy

Thanks for responding Keith. I certainly don't know the answers for certain to the questions I posed, and you're right, concerns about anything new have a long history. I'll give you an example that concerns me from my wife's school.

There's a science teacher who has everything for her class on laptops. When kids come in, they get their laptops out, and are not to talk the entire period. If they have questions, they have to email the teacher. Being a therapist, I've always suspected this is a way this person deals with a great deal of anxiety. But aside from that, I just don't see that as teaching. Kids are always complaining to my wife that "She doesn't teach us". But the superintendent of the district thinks it's the way to go and has her doing in-services all the time, and even teaching grad classes with him. An email recently announced that she one of the top tweeters in the country, whatever that means. My wife's school also has credit recovery classes for kids who are way behind in credits, all done on line. Again, a double edged sword. They get the credit, but in my mind, little is done to help them correct the dysfunction that cause them to fall behind in the first place.

Technology has become my best friend in a lot of ways. Can't imagine doing things I do without it. And I'm just scratching the surface at this point. But like I said, I worry about doing too much of it too soon with kids. It's probably going to happen outside the classroom regardless of what we decide to do inside them. But I'm not sure we should just jump on the bandwagon.

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