The Digital Classroom?

In reference to: http://www.teleread.com/paul-biba/why-jaron-lanier-is-wrong-about-the-digital-classroom/

Yes, Lanier doesn’t understand technology. A program that forces you to create and learn in a certain way is a problem, but the best educational applications are ones that allow you to freely create and share the content. Take the Wikimedia Foundation as one example of such a great application.

Bernius, on the other hand, misses the point. Lanier is not really writing about the “geeks of Silicon Valley.” Sure, he thinks he is, but all of the problems Lanier discusses are perfectly relevant. They’re simply misaimed. The policy makers and educators are the hands that wield the technology. Why is technology both ineffective and subduing? Most people think technology is just a trigger to press. Aim at the problem and shoot away with your easy solution.

When I was in high school, technology was so obviously ineffective that it was seldom used. Computers were still just for word processing. Today, technology has progressed to a point where the educator thinks it’s classroom-worthy. It’s also a political and capital problem in that the education policy-maker wants to be seen pushing technology and the companies involved want to be first in line. Today’s super-availability of media (however it’s obtained) is one of the only exceptions at how technology is put to good use in the classroom.

I see two problems. Firstly, technology — e-books, computers, the internet, tablet-PCs, etc. — still isn’t at a point where I’d consider it useful in the classroom. Specifically, e-books provide significantly less than your typical hardcover textbook. They’re difficult to use, highlighting and margin-writing are less useful, and they have all the same drawbacks that printed textbooks have (namely, inaccuracies and a narrow point of view). Secondly, technology needs to be seen as a tool, not a solution. The classroom picture in Lanier’s article shows two giant screens and no chalkboards or whiteboards. This clearly shows technology being used as a solution, not a tool. The smart classroom has many ways to put a point across. (To be fair, Lanier’s classroom looks like a VTC class, not typically in a standard school).

How are these problems solved? Move away from stand-alone textbooks entirely (electronic or printed). It’s not bad to have a reference book, but most classes I’ve had (most recently at the college graduate level) still rely on the textbook as a major source. I really see the textbook transforming, rather than being eliminated. There’s no reason a book can’t be a living, network-centric document (much like Wikipedia is). E-readers and tablets are the tools that can unlock such a resource. Teachers and textbook-writers can contribute, and rapid feedback and updates are a feature. Outside of the classroom, students and teachers in many different schools can discuss the content. Perhaps this could even solve the problem of grade-school textbook quality, an issue that has been around for many years.

To Lanier: this is what technology does, it’s what programmers, scientists, and engineers do: help people to communicate and do work more efficiently. I can’t disagree that this changes us, changes the classroom. I’d like to think that it’s for the better. I find it hard to believe that, as a computer scientist, you feel this way about computer scientists. Perhaps it’s because I’m an engineer, but I think you’ve simply forgotten the difference between a model and reality.

To Bernius: I agree, but lighten up.

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