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Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 12, 1998

Posted to DEOS-L 13 March 1998

Nobody who knows me would say that I am terrified of technology, indeed, quite the opposite. However, an attraction to technology need not imply an endoresement of all manifestations in all circumstances. Perhaps my comments, then, from a relatively neutral position, will help diffuse this dispute.

Somebody wrote: Jan's reply to Margit is indicative of the very problems that Margit identifies. Jan's accusation, that those who question the use, (even the rational use), of new technology, do so only because they are "afraid that technology will make their contribution to education irrelevant", is a red herring that is getting tiresome.

Jan replied: Information Technology is like a herd of elephants stampeding into academia. It is the free market as it has never existed before. The law of the jungle applies. The methods and means that work will survive and flourish and those that don't will die. Neither you nor I can stop or slow it, and only if we stay at the leading edge, do we have any chance of influencing the direction in which it is moving.

In this paragraph we have the assertion that the introduction of technology is inevitable. Broadly stated, that is true.

However, it is also stated that this introduction will resemble the introduction of a product in a free market, whereby the decision of whether or not the product is successful - that is, whether or not the product is adopted by many users - is determined strictly by market forces.

Manifestly, that is false. The introduction and use of particular technologies can be regulated and controlled. The clearest example in our century is the introduction and use of nuclear weapons. Despite their enormous success in the free market as the deterrent of choice, global society has decided that their existence and use is harmful, and has taken steps to reduce, and eventually eliminate, their number. Similar analogies exist in the field of biotechnology. From the fact that eugenics is possible, and likely to be very successful in a free marketplace, society as a whole has decided that this would not be a welcome advance, and has taken steps to limit and regulate its use.

This also applies to information technology. In a completely free marketplace, personal and private information about citizens would sell like hotcakes, as would the technology needed to drive such a system. However, society could decide that this would not be in the best interests or the commonweal, and hence, steps already have been taken to limit the acquisition and distribution of personal information.

If you are standing in front of the stampede, you are justified in being afraid or terrified or worried, but that won't change anything. You can editorialize, criticize, verbalize and just plain moan and groan, but the people who are leading the charge won't hear you unless you can talk their language.

Again, Jan continues with the 'inevitability' line of argument. But in fact, historical and contemporary steps to limit technology are taken through the political process. The people who impose these limits are not the same people as the people who develop the technology. Indeed, it is not even necessary for the politicians who impose limits, not the lobbyists who sway them, to understand the technology nor to speak to the technologists. All they need understand is that the result of the technological change will be undesirable.

The crux here is: it is not sufficient to argue that technological development in general is inevitable, or even that a particular technological development is inevitable. Rather, the onus falls on those who would develop the technology to convince the rest of society that this development is *good*. As one who makes a living developing technology, I have felt the brunt of that onus on many occasions.

Jan's comments were in reply to someone, who apparently stated many messages ago, that: I agree that we should ask why, in both general and case specific senses, before we rush into the application of any educational technology. The sheer expense of these methods requires us to do so. Jan invites us to jump into his/her Porche; but before I do that I usually want to know where I'm going.

This writer offers an instantiation of my previous point. She is questioning whether the introduction of some particular piece of technology will be good. In my opinion, the onus does fall on Jan - or others in the field - to show why (to follow the analogy) - it is good to jump into a Porsche, as opposed to (a) a Volkswagen, or (b) a bicycle.

For my part, I don't drive very much. I have no need to drive. A Porsche would thus be a needless expense. Indeed, a Volkswagen costs more than I am prepared for faster transportation. I get to work by bicycle or bus. Further technological investment in transpotation would be wasted. I would much rather spend my money on more basic necessities, like beer.

Jan, presumably, replies, So let's assume that you ask why, and tomorrow, MS announces a teacher template that records the class of the best instructor in a field, allows the class to update the template each time it's taught and makes it so that every student in the nation can learn from the very best teacher.

Here Jan is pointing to the benefits of a certain technology. While her argument obtains a more solid footing, it is still weak. There are two assumptions in this statement: (a) that there is, or could be, a *best* teacher, and (b) that it would be appropriate to implement that person's methods in all cases. I think that both assumptions are demonstrably false, on the same grounds.

The grounds in question is the (in my view, verifiable) assertion that: no two classes are the same, and indeed, when classes globally (or even nationally) are viewed collectively, they are sufficiently different so as to ensure failure in a significant number of them were they all taught in the same manner.

A student in East Los Angeles carries a very different set of assumptions, practises and prior knowledge into an educational situation than does, say, a student in West Virginia, or a student in the Canadian Arctic. Different people will be very good at teaching some, but by no means all, of these students. Different methodologies will be appropriate for some, but by no means all, of these students.

What effect is your "Why" going to have? If you can't answer, I will. Absolutely Nothing. (And if it isn't Teacher Template, it will be Reading Magic or Hooked on Phonics or something else.)

But again, these examples hsow the weakness in the assumption. I was taught language by means of phonics. But it turned out, over time, that my true aptitude was in the area of syntax and linguistic construction. Because I was taught language in a manner inappropriate to my abilities, I struggled for many years with language.

The assumption that there is One True Way to teaching - or any other discipline, for that matter - is one which, in my view, cannot be sustained. For that reason, we cannot draw the conclusion that there is one technological solution which will address educational needs. It would further be in the interest of society to discourage technological solutions which favour a unary approach to education, rather than a plenary approach. Hence, for that reason, I would - and have, elsewhere - oppose the implementation of such a technology, even though it would probably complete effectively in a free market.

Someone way back when wrote: Despite the fact that computerized education has been with us for some time the discussion about its implementation is still acrimonious. One hopes that eventually the supporters of more technological solutions will begin to discuss these issues on their own merits, weighing out the pros and cons of each application, rather than trying to disqualify the citicisms by branding them as self serving. Until the proponents, like Jan, are willing to discuss these issues, without being dismissive, they will just be further delaying the very techniques they want to see implemented.

I believe that arguers on both sides should resist the urge to be dismissive. In my view, there are very strong reasons for the introduction of information technology in education. But these reasons are tempered by very legitimate concerns, such as the one described above, and others. What we should be attempting to do is to identify the reasons why we want to employ technology, identify the concerns about the indroduction of technology, and then foster through legislation, funding, and use those technologies which satisfy the needs while addressing the concerns. Indeed, this approach has been the keystone in my own technological development.

Jan, I think, replies, The acrimonious discussion is coming only from those who fear and resist the change. Hopes are useless in the free market whether you approve of it or not. Those techniques that work will succeed and then new techniques that build on the old will come along and again, those that work, will succeed. If your hopes could prop up a failure, it would last only as long as you are there to carry it, and then it will fade away.

Jan, unfortunately, now returns to the 'inevitability' argument, which as I argued above, does not provide good grounds for the accetance of a particular, or any, technology. She adds the point that resisting new technology is tantemount to propping up a failure. I venture to disagree. Let me again return to my bicycle.

Automobile advertisements deluge my living space each year announcing new technological advances. As I mentioned above, I have already chosen to employ an established technology, the bicycle, as my primary means of transportation. To follow Jan's argument by analogy, my resistance to these auto manufacturers is tantemount to propping up a failure. But I beg to differ. In addition to providing reliable and cheap transportation, my bicycle provides an easy means of exercise, is easy to store, and does not pollute the environment. For all these reasons, I view my bicycle as being far from a failure.

I think the same can be said of educational technology. In Canada - and I would venture to say, the United States and elsewhere - we have an educational system which has produced individuals with the most sophisticated and detailed learning in the history of humanity. Graduates from our educational systems, collectively, have advanced knowledge and wisdom in all fields from microbiology to urban geography. To a large degree, our social objectives *are* being satisfied by our traditional educational system. Under no circumstances can contemporary education be classed as a "failure".

That is not to say that it cannot be improved, and indeed, graduates of the educational system are lining up in their enthusiasm to point to ways in which it could be improved. I have no problem with that assertion, and in fact, am working daily in my own attempts to improve the system. But by the very fact that the educational system is not a complete failure, it follows that some changes could improve the system, while other changes could harm it.

And indeed, some of the improvements I would point to are those which by their very nature defy a technological solution. The problem of underfed children will not be addressed by giving them a laptop. The problem of unmotivated teens will not be solved by courseware. There are factors where we need to look to sociological solutions, not technological solutions. There is no contradition in this. It is appropriate - even desirable - that we reap the fruits of all our knowledge to improve our educational system. Or to put it another way: the advocacy of technological innovation needs to be balanced with a regcognition of a need for societal change as well.

It is incumbent upon us to demonstrate how any change, technological or otherwise, will improve the system, and equally significantly, not harm it. Debates in this area become somewhat heated at times because it is really *important* that we not destroy what we have built through the generations. A major mistake in the field of education would be catastrophic, because it would also impair our capacity to fix the damage caused by that mistake.

Jan continues, I will not waste my time discussing a system that is doomed and neither will those in front of the stampede for to waste our time in such a way will mean that we will lose our place in front of the stampede.

If that means, Jan, that you will no longer discuss the issue of the introduction of technology with those who firmly belive in the values and methodology of traditional education, then that is very unfortunate, for the reasons I have stated above. Being in the front of the stampede is not always the place to be, whether it be as a soldier leaping over the trenches or a lemming leaping over a cliff. Even more so, stampedes in general are not good places to be.

I would much rather walk - or take my bicyle, as it were - at a measured pace toward a fruitful environment. And I think that I would prefer to walk with both the innovaters and the resisters, discussing in earnest both the merits of the journey and the mode of transportation, rather than lead a stampede, always looking back, fearful that the rest may not be following.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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