Thursday, August 9, 2012

Technology and Educational Ecology

Neil Postman: Extremely Dope
"Technological change is neither additive nor subtractive. It is ecological. I mean 'ecological' in the same sense as the word is used by environmental scientists. One significant change generates total change. If you remove the caterpillars from a given habitat, you are not left with the same environment minus caterpillars: you have a new environment, and you have reconstituted the conditions of survival; the same is true if you add caterpillars to an environment that has had none. This is how the ecology of media works as well. A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything. In the year 1500, fifty years after the printing press was invented, we did not have old Europe plus the printing press. We had a different Europe. After television, the United States was not America plus television; television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry. And that is why the competition among media is so fierce. Surrounding every technology are institutions whose organization -- not to mention their reason for being -- reflects the world-view promoted by the technology. Therefore, when an old technology is assaulted by a new one, institutions are threatened. When institutions are threatened, a culture finds itself in crisis. This is serious business, which is why we learn nothing when educators ask, Will students learn mathematics better by computers than by textbooks? Or when businessmen ask, Through which medium can we sell more products? Or when preachers ask, Can we reach more people through television than through radio? Or when politicians ask, How effective are messages sent through different media? Such questions have an immediate practical value to those who ask them, but they are diversionary. They direct our attention away from the serious social, intellectual, and institutional crises that new media foster."

This is a passage from Technopoly, a brilliant book by Neil Postman. Postman is one of my favorite authors and has written numerous books on technology, media and education. This particular book is close to 20 years old, and I think it is still incredibly relevant.


Technology has had a profound impact on the ecology of our schools, and I believe we are at a point of crisis. The word crisis has many definitions, so let me be clear. Education is at a turning point. It is going through a radical change and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. The internet, along with cheap and powerful computers, is revolutionizing the way children are educated across the globe.

Elsewhere in the book Postman wrote, "
It is a mistake to suppose that any technological innovation has a one-sided effect. Every technology is both a burden and a blessing; not either-or, but this-and-that."Many of us get excited by the idea of a classroom full of iPads. Few of us consider the potentially negative consequences that these technologies will have.

I spend a lot of my time researching new technologies and encouraging others to use these new tools. This particular post is designed to encourage thoughtful adoption of these tools. As these tools get more powerful, and old school administrators retire, their adoption will speed up. Their power will make educating students more effective and efficient. Their affordability will offer savings to districts that will not be passed up. As we march into this future, it would be wise for us to zoom out a bit and consider what could be lost in this ecological shift.


Here are some questions to discuss...

How will the teaching profession change?
How will the relationship between student and teacher change?
How will the relationship between student and student change?
How will students' social skills and physical health change?
Will students still care about nature, exploring the world, and living outside of their virtual worlds?

Some more practical questions for educators might be...

What kind of math will still need to be taught?
Will foreign language need to be taught?
Is spelling or cursive writing necessary?
How much time do we need to spend teaching historical facts?
How do you design a test for someone who has the answers to any objective question at their fingertips?
Should elementary-aged children be going to a computer lab to practice literacy or computer literacy?

Consider for a moment the amount of time you spend in front of a computer. Now compare that to the amount of time you spent in front of a computer 25-30 years ago, or as a child. How has that changed your personal ecology? How has that changed your life?

As educators, we have the profound task of passing along our culture. Is this electronically-immersive culture exactly what we want to pass along? Do we want our students spending most of their youth in large, secure boxes with pieces of machinery? What kind of adult will that produce? What kind of culture will rise out of such conditions and be passed along to the next generation?

These are critical questions that must be considered because children are largely passive receivers of the culture we present in our schools. Are they being taught to question this culture or simply accept it? Are they being taught to carefully consider the ramifications of new technologies, or are they simply being taught to get excited about the next iPhone?

I will leave you with one final quote from Postman, "I don't think any of us can do much about the rapid growth of new technology. However, it is possible for us to learn how to control our own uses of technology. The "forum" that I think is best suited for this is our educational system. If students get a sound education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, they may grow to be adults who use technology rather than be used by it."

Postman was a genius.