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.

Placing Too Much Faith in Technology in the Classroom

Stare at the screens, you zombies!
Stare at the screens, you zombies!

W.J. Astore

Americans put a lot of faith in technology.  Nowadays, we see computers, one-gun projectors, Smart boards, and similar technologies as essential to education.  But are they really?

In many cases, computers and PowerPoint and one-guns are simply fancier overhead projectors.  And when you show a video, does it matter if it’s from YouTube or from a DVD or from an old film projector?  Many of the new technologies allow us to make slides or show videos with more ease, but they don’t change education in any fundamental way.

Take calculators.  When I was in middle school in the 1970s, electronic calculators were taking over from slide rules as the new shortcut calculating device.  I wouldn’t want to go back to slide rules, but calculators didn’t make us any smarter.  Indeed, by focusing on getting the right answer as an exercise in operating the calculator, the new devices tended to obscure the meaning of the answer.  You learned to operate the machine and not necessarily the concepts behind the mathematics.  It was all solution, no understanding.

I didn’t like it at the time, but I learned long division, how to do square roots, how to solve quadratic equations, how to plot a graph without a calculator doing the heavy lifting for me.

Classrooms themselves are fascinating areas where “old” technology often lingers.  I still use chalk boards (or white boards), and I still occasionally use those old overhead projectors.  I was using slide projectors as late as the year 2000; in some ways, they were better than PowerPoint (e.g. brighter images and no worries about gigabytes of memory or backwards compatibility).

All this is to say that I’m skeptical when someone touts a technology as revolutionizing education.  It’s true that students need to know about computers and the Internet; the so-called Digital Divide is a real thing, with disadvantaged students suffering in a world driven by computers.

But education itself remains a process that is personal, creative, imaginative; education is an exercise in alchemy, the mixing of minds in the classroom that sometimes creates dross, but other times leads to – well, maybe not gold – but to exciting new ideas.

If technology can serve as a catalyst in this creative endeavor, that’s great.  But oft-times I see students in a PowerPoint-induced coma, staring at slides and images and thinking that the only thing that matters is memorizing the words on those slides.  An overuse of PowerPoint reduces teaching to briefing; the instructor becomes the “sage on the stage” and the students become unthinking zombies.   And it can be highly tempting as an instructor to fill that role – just give the students what they want, a simple template to memorize the course material so they can do well on the tests and jump through the hoop that is your course.

But that’s not education: it’s training.  Or worse: it’s conditioning.

Real education is not about the technology.  It’s about creating a dialogue; it’s about stimulating critical and creative thinking.  And to do that, the best “tools” are fully engaged human beings, teachers and students doing an alchemical dance of the mind in the crucible of the classroom.