The great myth of Technology and its role in Education

It's been the vogue recently for technology giants to make inroads into the education market, most recently with Apple's introduction of iBooks and iBooks Author. Big names like Google and Amazon have already joined the fray, seeking to grab a foothold in the multimillion dollar education business. My question is, though, is technology really the solution to education?

The Zeitgeist

Here in the US there's something unshakeable about our belief in science and technology. Perhaps it's because so much of our country's heritage was built on the grounds of being innovators, tinkerers, scientists, and inventors. After all, we were the ones who spoke over distances through copper wire, created the lamp, and sent men to the moon. Naturally, to many it seems that technology is the key to educating our future generations.

And while it would be alarmist to make sweeping generalisations about the education system, there are gaping deficiencies in the system that must be addressed. Among all this we must ask ourselves: does the introduction of technology truly help future generations or are we blindly trying to re-invent the wheel while ignoring more fundamental problems?

Classroom of the Future

Take for instance Apple's most recent foray into the educational market. Among the naysayers, the trolls, the fanboys and the observers are those who believe this represents the way forward, that this will revolutionise learning the way iTunes took the music industry by storm. And in the far future, their vision is far more radical: a perfect classroom where the teacher acts merely as a guide, assisting and adjusting to the needs of students as they learn from tablets and computers. But rosy-cheeked illusions aside, there are issues to having technology as the centrepiece of educational curricula.

Firstoff is the belief that having something interactive, and not passive, enhances attention and increases devotion. The genesis of such a concept can be found in the teacher-student relationship. A devoted teacher that interacts with his students is more likely to produce top-notch students than the stodgy lecturer, especially in the primary years. But let's not confuse this relationship with that of technology. Humans are a social animal, and more readily bond with people than with a computer we know can not and will not revel in our success or commiserate in our failures. But this misconception leads to my second point: information technology is immediate. By nature, it grabs our attention and refuses to let go. Television and movies are constant and unceasing, and while the pause button is always an option, there is no half-measure to this type of content. You're either devoting full attention to it or it's off, and this media can't be consumed or skimmed for particular information the way text can. And this leads us to the heart of the issue: does technology provide a student with the impetus to learn.

Consumers and Teachers

To a degree, it does. It provides a simulation of human interaction, and immediate gratification. With the influx of technology in the educational market, we consistently hear of people saying how willing they would be to learn if only given the right tools, in this case technology such as ereaders and tablets. Likewise, we hear of how natural and inviting certain technologies are, how they function as an extension of our natural selves. But let us not forget all these devices were designed not with the education market in mind, but the consumer market, and thus were designed from the ground to draw and capture your attention. These are not passive technologies, these are active distractions, and once the novelty of a unique tool wears off, the student may be back to where he initially starts, potentially worse off if the system is rigged so that teachers are merely guides. The enthusiasm to learn comes from within, of course, but hinges on the dedication and enthusiasm of a good teacher.

Now let's consider the alternative: a competent classroom with technology supplementing already effective teaching methods. Does it truly add value to the equation? I will concede there are benefits to having technology in the classroom, simply because it represents the most effective method of presenting a particular lesson. Is it possible to teach kids the ability to search for, categorise and organise data without a computer? Or to hinder an aspiring writer to a pen's 20 words per minute when his fingers type at 65 and his brain thinks at 80? But there should be limits to its utility in classrooms. Technology, for reasons described above, begs to become the centre of attention, drawing a pupil's focus away from the teacher and from the lesson.

Put simply, a student unwilling to learn won't magically become a superior student through the introduction of technology in classrooms. The problem is only overcome through good teachers, and this is where the focus of efforts should be.

Responses welcome.