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September/October 1997
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Waiting for Synthesis
By Wendy Rickard
editor@isoc.org

The news about computers and communications technologies bears a striking resemblance to the dialectic cycle of thesis, antithesis, synthesis. The thesis (a trend) is presented, the antithesis (a countertrend) emerges to challenge the arguments offered by the thesis, and a synthesis ultimately is achieved, resulting in a higher stage of truth.

This cycle can be traced throughout the short history of technology in the 20th century. The space programs, both in the United States and in the former USSR, began with big promises and even bigger support. That support waned, however, as the potential--and the value--of those programs came into question. Not long after the first crop of experts began extolling the fantastic benefits the space program held for research, medicine, agriculture, and defense, a new crop of experts began feverishly warning us that our hopes were mislaid; those programs were costly, wasteful, poorly implemented, and incapable of making good on their promises.

In today's lexicon, the conditions of the information age, which will officially begin on 1 January 2001, one year later than most believe, are being set by the rapid proliferation of computers and communications technologies. New technologies, we are told, are driving the global economy, changing the landscape of business (and the requisite skills for business productivity), offering new hope for an education renaissance, and giving us more interesting ways to spend our money and our leisure time. Although none of us has wanted to suffer the pain of the transition (learning new skills, changing the way we bank and shop, buying a computer for the kids), the information age seems like a pretty nice place to be.

Now the countertrend emerges. Over the past year or two, the mainstream media, social scientists, and other experts are finding a cancer in this glorious machine. Newsweek magazine drew worldwide attention with its cover story two years ago on the Internet, children, and pornography. The wolf in sheep's clothing was revealed: the new medium, which promised to give our children access to the world's libraries and museums suddenly became a harbinger of pedophiles, stalkers, and dirty pictures. Worse, the potential for computer and communications technologies to improve education in our classrooms and enable lifelong learning, we are now told, is nothing short of dangerous myth, or in the words prominently displayed on the cover of the July 1997 issue of The Altantic Monthly, "educational malpractice."

Education has become a hotbed of points and counterpoints on the question of computers and communications and it is here that the countertrend is most critical. Parents are finding out in the New York Times that "a poll of teachers last year ranked computer skills and media technology as more important that the study of biology, chemistry, physics, classical literature or European history" (July 7, 1997, p. D3). In many parts of the developed world, and most certainly in the United States, we are being told that not only are our school districts' small coffers being spent on computers but that there is no evidence that computers improve education. They may, in some cases, diminish a child's ability to learn.

My first reaction to those and other reports was, Why would anyone think that a computer or an Internet connection would improve education? It's like handing someone a textbook and saying, Here, now you can learn. My second reaction was to become angered by the assumption that a dangerous myth has been exposed. The computer revolution did not, after all, come with a user guide. Piecing together what we know about education and what we can only guess about how to apply new technology tools is a process not a recipe. We may tremble at the thought that books will one day be obsolete while never taking to the time to consider the many ways in which print is itself a tedious technology.

It is said that if you only a have a hammer then everything around you begins to look like a nail. If computers have become the new hammers in education then we indeed have a problem. I do not, however, believe that's what's happening. To begin, we need to do what many of the naysayers are not; that is, stop lumping all learners into the same category. I would rather see a five-year-old developing his or her learning skills in a three-dimensional world of building blocks and Legos than insisting that he or she sit in front of a computer simulating the same tasks. Similarly, I'd rather see a 17-year-old art history student in Japan interacting online with an educational program from the Louvre than relying on books alone.

As Todd Oppenheimer seems to be saying in his article in The Atlantic Monthly, "The Computer Delusion," we must curb our love affair with computers in education. History, he writes, is full of examples of how technology has let us down, from Thomas Edison's predictions that the motion picture will revolutionize education to B. F. Skinner's claims that teaching machines will eventually allow us to learn twice as much in the same time. I believe computing and communications technologies will play a continuing and significant role in education, if only we can temper our expectations and apply them thoughtfully and intelligently. We must also understand that computers in and of themselves are not a solution, but neither was the textbook.

I grow increasingly frustrated when I see the promising, innovative, and increasingly important work being done to develop new technologies washed away in a flash flood of pessimism generated by a storm of surveys. We must remind ourselves that we are at the beginning of a new era (and necessarily at the end of another). Like any move, it is not easy to know what to take with us and what to leave behind. If we are led to believe that computers and information technologies are "bad" for education, then perhaps we need to be reminded that the countertrend does nothing more than provide us with new information. Only then can be we achieve true synthesis.


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