Technology as Diversion from Social Inequality

tech fears

W.J. Astore

Today, access to technology and its services is often associated with equality of opportunity in society.  In education, for example, getting computers and Internet service to low-income students is considered a vitally important step to students’ maturation and their skill sets in a competitive global marketplace.  The “digital divide” must be bridged, else disadvantaged students will be stuck in the dark ages and left behind.  Focusing on technology as both “bridging” mechanism and source of enlightenment has the added benefit of being easily measurable and “correctable,” e.g. by increasing the number of computers per class, the number of connected classrooms, and so on.

Spending (or, as they say, “investing”) money on classroom technology, moreover, is obviously favored by tech companies both for present and future profits (raise a child on Apple devices and perhaps as adults they’ll always favor Apple).  Parents like it too: perhaps Johnny and Susie mainly play games on their school-provided iPads, but at least they’re occupied while “learning” computer skills.

Of course, the digital divide does exist, and computer skills are valuable.  But hyping access to technology is often a distraction from much bigger issues of inequality, as George Orwell noted back in the early 1930s in “The Road to Wigan Pier.”

Back then, Orwell was concerned with electricity rather than computers and connectivity.  But what he says about electrification could be said about any technology presented as a panacea for social ills.

Here’s what Orwell wrote at the end of chapter 5 of his book:

And then there is the queer spectacle of modern electrical science showering miracles upon people with empty bellies. You may shiver all night for lack of bedclothes, but in the morning you can go to the public library and read the news that has been telegraphed for your benefit from San Francisco and Singapore. Twenty million people are underfed but literally everyone in England has access to a radio. What we have lost in food we have gained in electricity. Whole sections of the working class who have been plundered of all they really need are being compensated, in part, by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life.

Orwell was rightly skeptical of technological “miracles” like electricity that were sold as mitigating fundamental inequalities such as access to healthy food and warm and adequate housing.  Empty bellies and empty prospects are not filled by instant news, whether via the telegraph and wireless radio or via the Smart phone and wireless LANs.

The point is not to blame technology.  The point is to highlight technology as a choice, one that often doesn’t address fundamental inequities in society.

Of MOOCs and Technology: Why True Education Is Not Content Delivery

Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society"
Robin Williams in “Dead Poets Society”

W.J. Astore

Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are one of those “pedagogical practices that are current and relevant to the new generation of learners,” to use a description featured prominently in promotional literature. Sure sounds trendy, doesn’t it? But education is not simply about content delivery. Education is about inspiration. It’s about lighting a fire in the mind (and maybe the belly too). Call me skeptical, but I don’t think a MOOC can do that.

OK, I haven’t tried a MOOC, but I have experienced distance learning. As a military officer, I took ACSC (Air Command and Staff College) by “correspondence.” The Air Force sent me the books and study materials, I did the reading and studying — and learned absolutely nothing. Why? First you memorized content, then you took multiple-choice tests to measure your “mastery” of that content. I passed with flying colors — and retained nothing.

As a professor I’ve also advised a graduate student via distance learning. It was an adequate experience for the both of us, but we never met. The mentoring experience was impoverished. I felt little connection to the student, and I’d wager he felt little connection to me.

Distance learning and MOOCs reduce education to content delivery. And it requires an exceptional student to get the most out of them. When I query my students in class about on-line courses, most of them are ambivalent or opposed to them. When they favor them, they say things like: “It was easy to skate by” or “I took it only because it fit my work schedule.”

To be blunt, administrators are looking for ways to reduce costs, and on-line learning is being pushed for that very reason. No classrooms needed. Little or no cost for electricity, facilities, classroom materials and the like. Combine cost-cutting imperatives with growing privatization of education and you have a recipe for education delivered as a commodity driven by the profit motive.

What’s wrong with that, you say? Nothing. Just say “goodbye” to any radical or even fresh ideas being pushed by profit-driven vendors.

Even as we’re overvaluing MOOCs and distance learning, we’re overhyping glitzy technology in the classroom. When it’s appropriate, I use technology in the classroom, but not because I’m trying to be trendy, i.e. not because I think Twitter or Tablets or other gimmicks and gizmos are how you “connect” with today’s students.

Indeed, exactly because my students are perpetually staring at screens, I often use an old-school approach of engaging them in class with vivid stories and amusing anecdotes and open-ended discussion.

Today’s students don’t need more technology; they don’t need more PowerPoint and computer-based learning platforms. What they need are enthusiastic and talented and creative teachers and professors who see education not as a job but as a calling.

I bet every person reading this remembers a teacher or professor who truly inspired you. And I bet he or she did so without glitzy technology and without genuflecting before “current pedagogical practices.”

My father was fond of saying, “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” Give me passion in the classroom. Give me a teacher who throws off sparks, and students with combustible minds. Give me that, and I’ll show you true education.

An Addendum: After writing this, I came across a Northeastern University survey featured at the Chronicle for Higher Education that addressed MOOCs, among other issues.  This is what the survey found:

“Slightly more than half of the respondents believe that MOOCs will fundamentally transform how students are taught, but just 27 percent think the online classes are of the same quality as traditional, in-person education. And yet more than half of the respondents predicted that in five to seven years an online education would be seen as of equal quality to a traditional one.”

So whatever I think about MOOCs, I think it’s fair to say that they are here to stay, and that their influence and reach will continue to grow.

Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and The Contrary Perspective and can be reached at wjastore@gmail.com.