Since computers entered the educational market in the late 1970’s, there has been debate about their appropriate role in schools. While some advocate for quick adoption of every new emerging tool, others advocate for avoiding digital technology altogether. Between those extremes we find the more rationale observers who advocate for purposeful and thoughtful approaches to using information and computer technologies in classrooms. Todd Oppenheimer who generally argues for avoiding technology observed in the conclusion to his book, The Flickering Mind, that computers “can be effective when they are used only as needed, when students are at the right age or them, and when they are kept in their place” (2003, p. 394). David Jonassen who studied educational technology for decades and was recognized as a leader in the field of educational technology differentiated active learning in which technology is used to “engage learners, in representing, manipulating, and reflecting on what they know,” from passive learning in which students used technology for “reproducing what someone tells them” (2000, p. 10).
This ambiguity towards ICT among educators is not a new phenomenon. Throughout history, when faced with new information technologies, some educators have adopt a traditionalist approach and perceive new technologies as preventing students from learning the skills they believe are essential, while others advocate for embracing new technologies and adapting methods and goals to reflect these tools. In his 2011 book The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood, James Gleick noted that Plato was critical of writing and commented on teachers who sought to teach writing, “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding; and you offer your pupils the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom” (p 30).
Today’s educators do appear to be dealing with the same root cause that bothered Plato. We are renegotiating understandings of cognition, learning, and what it means to be “educated” in a world of new technology and its capacity to provide a human-like service. This renegotiation has been familiar for educators in the 20th century. Jerome Bruner recognized “each generation must define afresh the nature, direction, and aims of education to assure [that] freedom and rationality can be attained for a future generation” (1966, 22). Plato, however, appears to be describing a change more fundamental than Bruner. For many generations, society experienced relatively stable information technologies. Plato was alive and educating when human memory was being replaced with written memory. We are alive and educating when printed memory is being replaced with electronic memory.
Whenever society is faced with new information technologies, the new one eventually becomes dominant; and new concepts of cognition, learning, and education emerge. Gleick goes on to quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher, who commented on preliterate cultures (those that lacked writing), “There was no method: that is to say, no planting of knowledge by itself, apart from weeds and common plants of error and conjecture” (2011, p. 49). Clearly, something changed in the time between Plato and Hobbes to change perceptions of the value of text.
What appears to have changed between Plato and Hobbes are society’s paradigm mediums. These are structures that “form the very core of our system for understanding, conceptualizing, and promulgating knowledge,” and “they are exceedingly difficult to understand, isolate, parameterize, or control” (Mehlenbacher, 2010, p. 7). Once established, paradigm mediums become the lens through which societies are judged and that affect individuals’ interpretations of normal. Plato judged the technology of writing as a degradation of essential human cognition, thus his interpretation of education that focused on it. Hobbes, on the other hand, judged those without writing as primitive and he expected education to help students become skilled readers and writers.
Educators working in the middle of the 21st century are experiencing the conflict that accompanies a paradigm medium shift in society. The emergence of ICT, the information accessed through it, and the capacity to manipulate information is challenging deeply held beliefs about cognition, learning, and education. It is also necessitating new skills; one who cannot access, manipulate, create, and disseminate information using digital tools is not fully prepared to participate in economic, political, or social life in the 21st century. Because this shift is still not complete and educators (along with school leaders and technologists who design ICT systems for them) will be actively negotiating the role of new technologies in schools for the foreseeable future, it is necessary to explore these effects as we build a rationale for school ICT planning.
Bruner, J. (1966.) Towards a theory of instruction. Harvard University Press.
Gleick, J. (2011). The information: A history, a theory, a flood. Vintage Books.
Jonassen, D. H. (2000). Computers as mindtools for schools: Engaging critical thinking (2nd ed). Merrill.
Mehlenbacher, B. (2010). Instruction and technology: Designs for everyday learning. MIT Press.
Oppenheimer, T. (2003). The flickering mind: The false promise of technology in the classroom, and how learning can be saved. Random House.