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In a Technopoly, no one can hear you think… May 7, 2007

Posted by Jim Booth in culture of learning, Education, educational reform, technology.

XPOST: Scholars and Rogues

“Nobody’s right, if everybody’s wrong…”

Stephen Stills

The New York Times reported Friday that the Liverpool (NY) school district will begin phasing out student individual use laptop computers beginning next year. Citing problems such as students using their computers to cheat on tests, to surf porn sites, and to hack into local businesses as well as nightmarish problems with network security, laptop hardware/software problems and system crashes caused by large numbers of students surfing the Net when they were supposed to be studying, Liverpool, like an increasing number of school districts, has decided to give up on the grand experiment of having a computer for every child:

“After seven years, there was literally no evidence it had any impact on student achievement — none,” said Mark Lawson, the school board president here in Liverpool, one of the first districts in New York State to experiment with putting technology directly into students’ hands. “The teachers were telling us when there’s a one-to-one relationship between the student and the laptop, the box gets in the way. It’s a distraction to the educational process.”

Despite the fact that many school systems are still adopting laptop computer plans for their students, others who’ve had time to give the programs a reasonable tryout (in most cases 5-7 years) are getting rid of their computers for many of the same reasons that the Liverpool school system is abandoning their program.

Many in education believed that giving students laptops would revolutionize education and make kids better educated and tech savvy all “in one fell swoop” as the Bard would say. How did things go so wrong?

Well, there are at least two ways (I won’t say there aren’t others) we can look at the issue of computers as changers of the way we gain knowledge and experience learning:

One might be what we call the Wired view: Lewis J. Perelman, in a landmark article from Wired Magazine from 1993, proclaimed that “hyper-learning” would eventually outstrip traditional education and that people with computers would become so adept at educating themselves that public schools, for one, would simply atrophy and be replaced by a sort of “educational” marketplace where users would simply educate themselves to prepare for careers they desired, social understanding they craved, and artistic or philosophical depth they sought.

Given that high school and college students use their computers mostly for downloading music, watching videos on sites like YouTube, playing video games, blogging, and visiting social sites like MySpace and Facebook, it may be a while before Perelman’s utopian vision is realized.

The other might be called the Technopoly view: communications professor and culture critic Neil Postman, in his 1993 classic about the dangers of technology run amok, Technopoly, argues that the computer is an insidious destroyer of the institution of education because it seeks to substitute technological solutions for the “human” (read “humane” as in “humanities”) solutions that one learns in school – group learning, social responsibility, and cooperation.

Well, MySpace and Facebook certainly promote social interaction, and blogging allows for the full and free exchange of ideas (though one can argue that many of the opinions blogged should spend more time being cogitated before being expressed), while on-line classrooms make it possible for students to pursue degree programs in innovative (if not always in entirely socially satisfying) ways.

So what do we know about computers and learning?

– We know that kids need guidance using technology as a learning tool.

– We know that if you give students the privilege of their own computers without attaching some serious responsibility for maintenance and care that they’ll be careless and destructive with them – just as they are with state issued textbooks.

– We know that so far, simply handing students computers and expecting them to learn has made little or no difference in their standardized learning progress measurements. (Yet another form of technology….)

– We know that it’s probably too soon to tell how computers will eventually change education.

So we don’t know much – except that assuming that there are quick fixes to the problems with our educational systems is costly, foolish, and stupid.

“Domo arigato, Mister Roboto…”

Dennis DeYoung



1. Sam Smith - May 7, 2007

Well, since we’re talking about my dissertation all of a sudden, let me jump in here. It looks like at least one district has found out the if-you-build-it-they-will-come crowd, and it’s a shame that so much energy and time and money had to be wasted to learn what a lot of people could have told you (and did, in fact) years ago. You accurately note the contributions of Postman, and to that scholarly mix I’d add people like Arnold Pacey, whose work points up the importance of understanding technology’s cultural and policy dimensions. It does us no good to make an assumption that computers will be used to educational purposes when we know enough about the culture of teens to understand that they are not wisdom seekers, they’re entertainment seekers.


An old colleague of mine once noted about his students that we’re told how damned tech-savvy they are. But once you get past downloading music, IMing and surfing porn they’re illiterate. It’s true, too.

What makes the technophilic impulse so powerful is that it’s deeply embedded – really, at the DNA level – in Millenarian theological impulses that trace back to the Bible and that have played a critical role in the technological project of Western culture for at least the last 1300 years or so. Asking us to doubt that tech can really solve a problem is like asking the tides not to feel the pull of the moon.

If anybody is really bored drop me a line and I’ll send you a copy of the dissertation. It makes the case in far less exciting fashion….

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