Technology & Education

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Does technology improve education? Are people in the 21st century better educated than those from the 19th century? If we use current politics as a metric I’d have to say no. We have a president who constantly makes absurd claims and is backed by a majority in congress. Those wealthy, “well-educated” leaders are currently claiming that the loss of healthcare is a gain in freedom. Evidently, they’re depending on Americans being poorly educated to get their treasured tax breaks. The Republicans have made a political movement out of anti-education in era when technology brings us tremendous amounts of information. Obviously, all that availability of knowledge hasn’t helped the average citizen see the con.

Technology has apparently improved all walks of life except education. If schools reflected the productivity we see in agriculture, medicine, manufacturing, and communication, we’d all be Einsteins. Why hasn’t that happened? When I sat down to write this piece I assumed technology was an overwhelmingly obvious benefit to education – but the little devil on my left shoulder started muttering snarky observations. She might be right.


The world wide web has made living on Earth feel much smaller. We can Skype folks from any country in the world, so why aren’t foreign languages skills booming? Anyone can study free lectures from ivy league universities on science and mathematics, yet STEM scores aren’t improving.

We have access to more news, information, knowledge, data, experiments, statistics, scientific studies than ever before in history, yet America elected a human whose grasp of reality is so slight that his observations are the daily butt of comedians. We have more data but not more wisdom. We’re unable process the daily tsunami of information that our tech tools gives us.

This leads me to theorize that being well educated comes from inner motivation and not external tools.


12 thoughts on “Technology & Education”

  1. Whoa. As in “Wha?” We’re both old enough to have received what I shall call a “classic” education in those times. Based on 50+ years ago it would have been classic “lite” compared to our parent’s education. While our educations didn’t provide us with the wide-ranging access to data (note, that “data” is not necessarily information) that today’s educational systems provide, it did provide a strong structure, and a linear understanding of culture, history and science. Does that mean it was infallible, and therefore 100% true? No. But it does mean that we learned (to the best of each of our abilities) as much as we could about the world as we knew it (or as the textbook writers/teachers knew it) in our time. And for many of us (but not all) we gained a method of learning and understanding that served us well in the world we grew up in.

    We had books, lectures, the occasional field trip and some access to extra information from libraries. What we didn’t have was all the distractions (some may say advantages) of sources of information that were not part of the curriculum. We also had a still “top down” educational system that insisted on the concept of information being “poured into” the open and waiting minds looking for enlightenment. And because we assumed that enlightenment (or parental approval) would come from following where the system led us, we pursued it (or didn’t). The straight line of public education’s information processing didn’t work for everyone, and the quality of the teachers had something to do with that. At the same time, that process had room for most students to fit in and at least do reasonably well.

    The only other true source of learning came from our time outside of school. And most of that time was spent in our neighborhoods or at home where we might gain other new knowledge from our parents. Or not. Outside of school and the neighborhood, our access to information that might be educational was limited to a relatively new process – television. Radio was already being limited to sports and news, and even then only as an adjunct to TV and school.

    That is a lot of yakking in order to say that the on-line world of today makes a mockery of the educational process that we lived with and learned from – and understood as children and young adults.

    There is one thing that is truly different from then until now – certainty. Despite the variation in quality of teaching skills in the 1950-60’s, mostly the same basics were taught to most of the kids. That does not stand true today. Regardless of the teaching modules, programs and systems today, the advent of nearly universal computer/online information sources has changed things completely.

    As someone who has lived long enough to see this change, I cannot make an arguable statement about the quality or superiority of either way of teaching and learning. I will state that most of the twenty-somethings of today whom I know have a much wider understanding of the world than I did at that age. But most of them have so little depth of understanding of this world – “and how it got this way” – that it worries me.

    I’ll toss this out for discussion or target practice: Nothing stands without a firm foundation under it. The wider the foundation, the bigger the building. The deeper the foundation, the stronger the building.

    1. Jim, have you seen the textbooks children use in schools today? They are gigantic! If they actually absorbed what it’s their school books they would all be top-notch scholars. I can only assume they don’t. I’m no educator, but I wonder if we’re not trying to stuff too much information inside their heads. I would think more emphasis on teaching how to process information is what’s needed. Obviously, in our age of fake news, people have trouble applying any kind of “rules of thumb” at guestimating the validity of what they are being told.

      The trouble is a large segment of our population has learned to challenge consensual knowledge as a way to get what they want. People seem to both doubt everything and believe everything.

      1. Yes, JW I have. I have friends who are teachers and relatives who have school-age children. The thirty lb. backpacks are ridiculous. But then again, that’s only because it’s necessary for the school board to ensure that kids aren’t bringing drugs or bombs to school and hiding them in their lockers. I’ll not take that opportunity to expand on that foolishness, expecting y’all to know what I think of that.
        I know that books can be remarkable resources for knowledge and wisdom. But even the best of them are just paperweights if they aren’t used correctly.
        Basically, I remember teachers “teaching” – using the textbooks as tools and references, as well as daunting assignment machines requiring hours of work at home.

        If that’s not what they are useful for, then why bother with them?

  2. James:
    You have struck at a critical concern of mine. How have societies spent Billions of dollars on education, but, came to the state of affairs the United States, and the World,has found itself in. How did an educated Society elect a Trump, who demonstrates no understanding what the WORLD has become?

    I am Canadian and am very aware that the USA policies strongly affect me and my country. WE ARE NOT ALLOWN! We all live on plant EARTH and, therefore, are connected. What one person, one society, one country does affects all the other people. Just when we, GLOBAL PEOPLE needed a intelligent, informed, thinking leader we were presented with a “snake oil salesman” or, if you prefer a “Bull-shitter” as Fareed defined the term. Regardless of the name it is most disheartening. I watch the News every day hoping for a better result, fully aware that it will not happen.

    With regards to education, it is true that all have access to data, or information, however we have not learn a better and more effective way to teach people to process the data. I am 81 and have seen and experience a few things. One fact, has been that few people really know how to think! I mean they do not know how to process the data. My schooling wanted me to memorize information, or data, but failed to give me the tools to mentally process the data. In fact, I am not convinced that the system wanted me to think, only to do and obey. This may be cynical, but I was raised in time of War, after WW1 and during WW2, and etc.

    My work experience was not overwhelmed with great thinkers. The best boss I had left me alone and I took advantage of the chance to think, experiment and determine best solutions to issues and problems. I never made mush money, but, I hope I did some good for my society.

    People need to “THINK”, process information, not just listen to the louder speaker. Also, when did lying and falsehoods become the norm?

    1. Have you read The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway? It chronicles why lying pays off politically. Conservatives who dislike the evidence of science have found that sowing fear, uncertainty, and doubt, is a very effective political tool. Also read Dark Money by Jane Mayer on how lucrative spreading falsehoods can be. Or study the Swiftboating of John Kerry.

  3. I work with students where technology is incorporated in their learning everyday. We are fortunate to have a successful iPad program where educational apps are being used to display the knowledge that our students have regarding different subjects, including math, science, geography, religion, writing, and others. However, I believe that education requires an integrative approach between technology and anything done by hand. We have the tools; people are not trained to know how to use them to their full effect in Education. Many schools in the US do not have the funding to pay for the appropriate technology to be supported in the classroom. Also, it is not everyone’s learning style to be attached to technology to learn new information. Personally, if I want to learn a new subject, I need to be in a classroom, where I write and read, and speak with others.
    There are other issues that prevent students from learning the way students did in the 50s and 60s. Current politicians have NO clue how their standards are truly applied in the classroom, nor understand how silly they are aka Common Core and No Child Left Behind. Education has changed where some fine educators have really gone above and beyond to teach their material through other approaches according to the child’s learning style. Look at the film “Freedom Writers”. If that teacher just followed a textbook and district statistics rather than buying them the books they needed, had real life discussions, taking them on field trips, etc. and did not see them as real people rather than an assembly line, those students would not have been successful. Educators have to recognize student potential. Technology can potentially enhance learning, but unless we are trained to adapt that technology to students’ learning styles and interests, it will still appear that technology has been wasted in this area.
    I am not sure the true directive of your blog here however. I believe your title is misleading. While politicians have interfered with our educational system, they are not the total problem. If we continue to blame the president and congress for our problems then nothing is going to change. Teachers need to step outside their own boundaries to teach our students. Do not rely on the politicians. If you want to educate students about the current state of affairs, then they need the tools to examine information effectively and help them develop critical thinking. The real issue here is while technology has much data to offer, unless we support critical thinking skills and things technology will never interpret, then all we will consume is data and have flat affect in our educational system.

    1. Jacqueline, when I wrote this blog piece yesterday it was because my friend who was going to come over and watch television with me told me she couldn’t because she had to write a short paper on technology and education for a class she’s taking. I liked the topic and thought I’d write my own paper for my blog. When I sat down I planned to proclaim the wonders technology has given education. But when I started writing things went in a different direction. I had just watched the news, and it occurred to me we wouldn’t be in this political circus if everyone were better educated. It bothers me that so much of the public is anti-education. Then I wondered if the political changes from the last decades were due to the technological changes in society. Could the internet and computers be bad for us and education? I don’t know. I’m only speculating.

      The replies I’m getting makes me think other people are wondering too.

  4. Sheesh. I promised myself I’d let loose one diatribe and then stop. Oh well.

    So. Education as a fount of knowledge that pours into willing receptacles hasn’t been true for a long time. It was a relic of the societies of the 1800-1900s (and occasionally lasting until the 1950s). Then, the world began to turn so fast that no one could teach as fast as things changed/improved no matter how hard they tried. K-6 education could never keep up. Fast forward to Jr High and high school (OK, now known as middle school and high school) and things both political and scientific changed from year to year. Nobody could keep up; especially the textbook conglomerates that became beholden to certain states and their politics so that certain “shading” of facts became commonplace. I won’t even go into the deeply slanted historical writings of those days.

    If there is one thing that I think is lacking in modern education, it is training in critical thinking. Along with that is teaching an appreciation for what critical thinking can do for the individual. CT can do very little for someone who has no background (history), or understanding of the world they live in (politics, sociology). Mathematics and science are terribly important, but day-to-day living doesn’t require much of either. Anyone who makes it through a reasonably qualified secondary education has the skills to determine what’s important to them in life, aka check writing and balancing. But only if they learn to use critical thinking first. And as long as credit is extended without serious penalties, why worry about being in default?

    I’ll skip the long diatribe regarding financial skills, etc since that goes with the critical thinking issue (along with some math).
    I fear that any society that is so focused on “feelings” and opinions without rigorous discussion involving facts and data (aka “numbers”) is doomed to fall into exactly what is happening today. My friends and their children are facing a difficult time with the dramatic changes in employment and participation in our economy’s benefits. I suspect anyone who isn’t a digital wunderkind or a clever investor is going to end up on the low end of the economic scale. Sure, the dirty jobs will always be there: construction, repair and maintenance, anything to do with refuse and sewage. Just a quick aside: does anyone know of a true craftsman of any kind that is under 30 and can make a living? Er, pardon one minor change – “Who isn’t considered and artist or worse, an “artisan”?

    Back to the main thread: our current society is so deeply (and socially) embedded with memes that focus on the froth of our content (and discontent) that we don’t pay any attention to the things that last for a lifetime. Given some deep discussions with recent educators, I suspect that K-12 education is no longer a useful qualification for almost anything in this world. Other than bagging groceries and serving fast food – “Do you want fries with that?”

    And finally, I don’t think that computers/facebook/iPads/big-screen phones/ or any other technology is the problem. They are amplifiers of the problem. They also contribute to the short-attention-span problem, but that is a connected, and serious problem of it’s own. Although I have considered electro-shock therapy in a few cases..and decided against it.

  5. The new technology will help the outliers. . the true Effects will be seen only in the outliers the ones that are autodidactic.

  6. James,

    I can talk with a bit of authority here, having been involved in technology and education for about 8/14 years depending on how you slice things up.

    Your final sentence here is correct. A good education is more reliant on inner motivation than external tools. I believe our country’s issues are the result of our social values. If you walk through a school you will hear about rockstars/rap stars and football/basketball players from the majority of the students. You will hear very little about authors, intellectuals, or scientists. It isn’t “cool” to care about education. That seems silly to most adults, but children ARE children.

    A second part to this problem is teacher training. A lot of times teachers just have technology dumped on them with no training. So now you have a teacher working 60 or 70 hours a week to keep up and then have to use new technology in their classroom with no guidance. This is not a formula for success.

    I do believe technology has a lot to offer education and I’ve seen great things happen with it, but it is not this ultimate problem solver that people seem to think it is. Jim Connell, says it will help the outliers. That is absolutely correct on the secondary (highschool) level. For a fully online experience, generally, only students who are sick and unable to attend a physical school or overachievers benefit. For something like a flipped classroom (where students watch lectures for homework and then do “homework” in class) can be beneficial to mainstream students in certain classes. This technique is particularly effective in Math courses.

    I think the current iteration of technology is a more effective tool in post-secondary, especially with adult learners (people with internal motivation!). It allows students to get their Masters degree and work full-time, something not available when I earned my Masters.

    I’ve also seen it used very effectively for adult education in corporate environments.

    Sorry if I repeated something other’s have said. I only read a few of the comments.

  7. After teaching for 40 years, I wholeheartedly agree with you on the connection between learning and motivation. All the glitzy technology in the world is useless if the students don’t feel like learning.

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