I listened to the Khan Institute TED talk the other day, and can see how a system like that could be flexible enough to adapt to each individual learner while giving the teacher fantastically accurate feedback on where problems lie and how to address them. A future like that looks bright indeed. Teachers would be free to focus on resolving problems and offering enrichment to basic skill sets, rather than standing in front of a crowd reciting facts. For skills based learning in languages and mathematics, this is revolutionary. This is technology used to differentiate a system that has developed some very habitual and static tendencies.
So, things are looking up, right? Education is slowly adapting to the technology wave and integrating it into a more flexible and responsive form of teaching. Then why do I think that once in place, this would allow governments to automate classrooms and drastically reduce the number of teachers in schools? Why do I think that, ultimately, this will dehumanize education?
I watched Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation recently (one of the top rated documentaries of all time, I highly recommend it). This has to be one of the smartest men I’ve ever listened to pulling no punches on a broad spectrum of Western history. This part (starting at 35:35), in particular, resonated with me about the times in which we live.
I think he’s ultimately right; machines do work slavishly for their owners, and those owners tend to be social powers in their own rights. Whether we’re talking the technology companies themselves, multi-nationals or governments, technology in general, and computers in particular, do as much (or more) to dictate our responses than they do to free us from conventions. If anything, computers are a more invasive and totalitarian convention than any art medium or the written word ever were. Digital natives aren’t people with a magical understanding of computers, they are human beings who have been taught to interface with them on a subconscious level. The industrial revolution started in the physical world and now continues its romp through the mental world, redefining human abilities in terms of how accurately and completely we can relate to digital technology.
Watching my poor grade 10s struggling through the standardized literacy test (in which they are identified by numbers and bar codes) today without their cyborg implants is reminding me just how pervasive cybernetics have become. They looked like ghosts without their constant media streams of video, sound and social connection. Watching them try to deal with 10 minutes of unneeded time at the end of the test without an onslaught of media was astonishing. They looked like they were in rehab.
Perhaps, as we grow through technological adolescence, it will become obvious that, at best, we will have a brave new world, at worst, a 1984. Digital technology will, ultimately, create a more manageable population, one that becomes easier to monitor while also becoming instinctively tuned to the needs of the machines that ‘serve’ them. A population that knows how to write (as long as it’s on WORD), or make music (as long as it’s on Garageband). Anyone who has watched a herd of high schools staring at Facebook can speak to its effectiveness as a herding tool.
More worrying is the sameness you tend to get out of student work based on the particular technology they used (we didn’t all used to self-identify through the editable parts of our facebook pages). Hand written documents are original in many ways that the boiler plate WORD DOC is not, but you ask students to hand write anything now (or draw anything – why bother when I can google it?) and they immediately ask, ‘what’s the point?’ Presentations have become powerpoints, then prezis, templates replace design, we find ourselves in a spiraling web of more intellectually focused (and limiting) applications; we start to develop an app mentality.
Machines will always favor efficiency over aesthetics, or ease of management over originality, or clear direction over multiple options. Their ones and zeros, by necessity, simplify the world their biological fore bearers created them from.
A few years ago I saw EPIC2014. It made some of my sharpest grade 12 media students cry. Here you have the concept of an individualized media feed, that gives you what you want, and nothing else. For the brightest, it becomes a nuanced, deep information tool, but for most of the population it feeds them what they want to hear: lies and gossip, while reinforcing their prejudices (sort of like Fox News). There might be some truth in that. If you’ve ever seen how students make use of social media, you can see how the stronger students reign it in, make use of it and control it, while weaker students are ruled by it.
I think that this will be the ultimate deciding factor: will clever people make use of technology to dominate, or will they use it to free us from conventions and allow us to think as optimally as we can? Looking at human history, the answer isn’t very flattering, but I hope for the freedom.