by Hap Aziz
Taking a broad view of history, it becomes evident that technological advances over the years have, for better or for worse, found their way into the learning enterprise. For the generation of students now in the academic pipeline, computers and the Internet are a fixture in many classrooms, libraries, and media centers, not to mention a conduit between instructor and student from the home, during any time of day or night. It’s quite a difference from the experience of my generation when calculators were becoming more widespread and the use of film and television brought visual images and audio from all over the world into our schools.
Thinking about the relationship between technology and education, we see that technology basically does two things in the teaching and learning process:
- Technology facilitates learning.
- Technology defines the parameters within which learning takes place.
The first item is how we commonly see and understand technology to operate within the education landscape. The use of computers and the Internet to facilitate online or distance learning is an example of this facilitation of learning. However, it is the second item, the defining of the parameters within which learning takes place, which is of much greater significance.
If we look back far enough, we see that the learning enterprise in its current form is based on the development of a significant technological advance; that is, the invention of the phonetic alphabet. Prior to that invention, teaching and learning was a very personal activity between a teacher and a student or small number of students. The learning process often involved conversation, recitation, and memorization, but just as often it involved hands-on participation and activities that gave students experience with a particular set of skills. That type of experiential learning is possible when societies (and the numbers of students) are relatively small, and when the content to be mastered is more narrowly focused. In other words, it would be very difficult to educate our students like that today.
Because of the invention of the alphabet, societies and whole civilizations developed the ability to capture, store, and share information across both time and space. As a result, education was transformed over time into a process that first involved learning how to code and decode information (writing and reading!) before learning the actual content of interest. So the invention and implementation of the alphabet and eventually the book defined the parameters within which learning takes place all the way up to and including our modern age.
Consider that our current educational process requires the achievement of some level of competency in the coding and decoding process before subject matter mastery can occur. The first few years of schooling beginning in pre-school or kindergarten is focused on teaching children how to read and write. Unfortunately, this is not the way humans were designed to learn—through experiential learning combining both hands-on and conversational activities, and without the added complexity of having to a coding and decoding protocol as a prerequisite to subject matter instruction.
Interestingly, and perhaps appropriately, technology has brought us to another transformational inflection point in the learning enterprise that offers the possible promise of reducing our dependence on symbolic manipulation and providing the mechanism by which people can learn the way we were designed to learn. With the development of multimedia-enabled computers, game systems, and smart devices, we already see how learners are able to master new skill sets without knowing how to read or write. Witness a child of preschool age playing Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies to see how problem solving abilities are cultivated. The learning at this point is trivial, to be sure, but it is occurring, and nothing indicates that this type of activity cannot be leveraged in more significant ways.
There are hurdles to be overcome, of course. A robust infrastructure will need to be developed to support the technology across the educational system. Content for all subject matter areas will need to be redeveloped from the ground up. And before that can happen, an entirely new pedagogical framework will need to be created around course design and assessment of progress toward desired learning objectives.
As high as these hurdles may appear to be, the potential impact of this shift in the utilization of technology is extremely enticing, even upon a mere surface examination. As well as the alphabet and the coding and decoding process has served the education establishment for the past several centuries, it is becoming more apparent that it may represent more of an obstacle to effective learning, especially for the young learners of today. How we evaluate the pitfalls and potential of the new technologies to serve teaching and learning will determine whether or not the parameters within which learning takes place are opened wide.