I’m just finishing Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget for a review for Ed Tech magazine, which I will also be publishing here. Over the weekend Lanier also penned a piece titled Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind? for the New York Times Magazine. A few comments on his NYTM piece.
We see the embedded philosophy bloom when students assemble papers as mash-ups from online snippets instead of thinking and composing on a blank piece of screen. What is wrong with this is not that students are any lazier now or learning less. (It is probably even true, I admit reluctantly, that in the presence of the ambient Internet, maybe it is not so important anymore to hold an archive of certain kinds of academic trivia in your head.) The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure. Their job is then to copy and transfer data around, to be a source of statistics, whether to be processed by tests at school or by advertising schemes elsewhere.
Much to unpack here. First, is what appears to be a critique of reuse. The entire paradigm of open educational resources is (supposedly) built on the idea of reuse and the benefits that will come to those who reuse. (Like the old adage, “good programmers write good code; great programmers steal great code.”) Problematically, almost all of the activity in the OER space has been sharing. One directional sharing. Like a shot in the dark, fired off into the night without recognition or concern over whether those materials would be used or not.
There will not be measurable positive impact on teachers and learners until the field of OER moves into a phase of reuse. A phase of aggregating and bundling and reusing OER. Other than the Open High School of Utah, I can’t point to a single example of a school that has committed itself to a philosophy of “aggregate first, create second.” Everyone involved in OER creates and shares, but hardly anyone uses OER produced by someone else.
It seems to me that Lanier’s question is one of how can we leverage the technology that’s available to us while being very careful to preserve, protect, and value our humanity. This is essentially the same question many of us asked 10 years ago about the work being done on learning objects. And I don’t think one has to look too far to see that this question, and the lessons we learned from asking it, have not been particularly widely learned.
What is really lost when this happens is the self-invention of a human brain. If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.
As Scott said earlier today on Twitter, this argument is both correct and obvious. But as a critique of a research agenda dedicated to increasing access to information and curriculum materials, it is one we have to be willing to address.
To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.
This paragraph upsets me more than any other in his piece. The false dichotomy between the two purposes of education is, unsurprisingly, false. We should admit, acknowledge, and be happy that one of the purposes of education is to transfer what the previous generation knew to the current generation. Without this continual transfer of knowledge, each generation would find itself back in the dark ages again. And to the extent that we belittle or downplay the importance of this function of education we will pay a price.
Yes, as Lanier says, education is also importantly about creativity, discovery, and innovation. And yes, we often overlook this function of education in favor of the transmission type of education. But as is true in so many other parts of our lives, we cannot allow ourselves to be pulled exclusively to one side or the other of this debate. We must maintain a thoughtful, reasoned, careful position in the center. This fight, the fight to remain in the center, is at the core of many of my concerns recently.
Let’s use the technology available to us, not to replace the human, but to help us be more human. Not to replace interactions between students and teachers, but to better direct those interactions. To help teachers know who needs help with what, about what, and when. To help learners find help when they need help.
I’ve said in the past that the best purpose of technology in education is to help us be more generous with one another. I still believe that.