On Changing Information Technologies

The role of microcomputers in curriculum and instruction has been debated since the first arrived in schools; some advocate for quick adoption of every new tool while others advocate for avoiding digital technology altogether. Disparate perception of emerging information technologies among educators is not a new phenomenon. 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).  Gleick goes on to quote Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century philosopher, who commented on preliterate cultures (those that lack 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” (p. 49).

Between Plato and Hobbes, text replaced human memory as the dominant repository of knowledge, and one’s ability to read and write determined the degree to which one could participate in the information life of society. Plato perceived writing as a degradation of human skills; so he advocated society reject the emerging information technology. In this, Plato lost. Writing expanded to throughout society, disrupted patterns of information use, and redefined what it meant to be “educated.”

The current generation of educators is working when similar disruption is underway. My grandfather graduated from the University of Vermont in 1939 and I have some of his textbooks on my bookshelves along with the textbooks I used at the same institution until graduating 49 years later. The content of the textbooks (we both studied biology) is vastly different, but the literacy skills (including the habit of writing in textbooks which we shared) useful for one are equally useful for the other. Textbooks, and the associated reading skills, are no longer sufficient to interact with content in schools. While other media has always played a role in curriculum, digital media is increasingly the mode of content, and is coming to dominate in some content areas.   The emergence of computers and other digital devices, the information accessed through them, and the capacity to rapidly manipulate information using them is challenging deeply held beliefs about cognition and learning. It is also necessitating new skills enter the curriculum; 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 from print to digital information is still not complete, strategic goals for schools will be actively renegotiated to reflect changing technologies and societal expectations relative to those technologies.