Strand: Education and Technology

Topic: Technology as a Vehicle for Understanding

Presenter: Ruth Ledbetter Galaz


Intercontinental voyages now at our fingertips lead to uncharted territories in human interaction. Many points of concern arise as learners meet in the new landscape.  In current publications and in the presentations at this conference, testimony grows to concerns about the relationship of technology and education. Healy claims that "anyone who assumes that being connected to the internet... automatically assures learning is either a fool or a salesman" (1998, p. 249), a charge reminiscent of Haley's observation early last century that "people take for granted that when children assemble in a schoolhouse, they have a school" (1924, p.19).

My own concerns often take the form of traditional complaints--for example, on the topic of text or textbook...What is the "proper form" of text? When students download Dewey's Democracy and Education from the internet, is the text the same as the bound, purchasable version, and need it be? Is the downloaded version a move toward or away from a form that will help the reader to learn the ideas contained within it? What does the form of text have to do with its content--or with the purpose for which we use that text? Does it matter how the text smells or how it feels to the touch of my fingertips?

My current position is that it does matter--somehow! There is a difference between downloading and printing Dewey's text with a touch of a keyboard or walking among the shelves of old libraries that have not overly succumbed to microfiche. There is a reason why I want to go to the bookstores behind the cathedral down the street from this conference...although I am not sure that it is an important reason in the broader context of teaching and learning. For myself as a learner, perhaps it is; certainly my learning has its own favorite patterns. But, for those whose learning is my profession and my commitment, are fragrance and touch of text critical factors--or simply trappings of a singular experience? Do my personal reactions reflect experiential associations whose time is passing, or do they suggest some constant subtleties of motivation?  Are motivating forces, whether fragile or powerful, universal and eternal?

There are other, perhaps more serious, concerns, as some have addressed today--for one, the elusive point of balance between unity and diversity that seems to be a scourge of our times. As educators, how can we know when to treat students the same or differently in order to best promote learning? Will our use of technology exacerbate the imbalance or will it enable us to convert the balance point from a dream into a common experience?

Many concerns relate to communication--that entity so often identified as the problem in human conflict, whether in institutional, community, or family settings. If communication is the essence of understanding, our ability to use technology to promote communication in any setting becomes vital. But what kind of communication serves "understanding"? We can e-mail one another, but does that act move us closer to understanding and acceptance of the differences among us? Today, students can communicate technologically with others in distant classrooms, communities and countries--but is mutual understanding well-served by the act, and how can educators make it so?

As we cope with the "unknown zones" into which cyber-space casts us and attempt to maintain the purposes we claim to serve, we will do well to be mindful of advice from educators of past centuries. Still applicable are John Dewey's caution that learning can be miseducative if it "has the effect of arresting or distorting the growth of further experience" (1938, p. 25), and Ralph Tyler's admonition that purpose must be clear and appropriate (1949, pp. 3-62). Rousseau's eighteenth-century claim that "...souls have become corrupted in proportion to the advancement of our arts and sciences" and that "we have physicists, geometers, chemists, astronomers, poets, musicians, painters--but we no longer have citizens" (1964, pp. 39, 59) echoes in Dewey's question, "What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information"...if in the process individuals lose their souls: lose..."appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; ...above all, ...the ability to extract meaning from...future experiences...?" (1938, p. 49).

The dramatic economic impact of the internet often is cited. What will be the political impact--and the spiritual? Perhaps all of these will be functions of the educative. In years to come, may it not be said that educators in our time lost their souls to technology, but that we learned to use it well in pursuit of human understanding. We have a destiny to create as we develop education-technology relationships, and we cannot treat it lightly.


Works Cited

Dewey, John. Experience & Education. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Haley, Margaret A. "The Factory System," The New Republic Part 2, 40, No. 519

(Nov. 12, 1924): 18-19.

Healy, Jane M. Failure To Connect. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The First and Second Discourses. Roger D. Masters (ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press, 1964.

Tyler, Ralph W. Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1949.