Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Digital Future

The Digital Future: Something to look forward to, or something to fear?


Robert L Fielding

  Advances in technology produce patterns in the communities with which they interact and into which they become assimilated.  Some facet of life is replaced, enhanced, or altered forever, sometimes for the worse.  Our ability to predict which of these paths the advance will take on in our lives never seems to improve.  What look on the face of it like huge benefits to society often turn out to be less so, to varying degrees.
  The advent of the television into our lives, for example, gave us an opportunity to disseminate information, to educate the masses, and to entertain.  However, the television, it has been said, is largely responsible for the atomization of society, the breakdown of family ties and traditional forms of entertainment in the home, and worse, the spreading of ideas detrimental to the well being of society in general.  None of this was foreseen when John Logie Baird's flickering images first entered our lives.
  Where formal education is concerned, the digital 'future' is already upon us.  The Internet, we are constantly told, promises to revolutionize education, the laptop computer will enter classrooms changing forever the dynamics of the classroom.
  There is no doubt in many people's minds that these advances have indeed the potential to radically alter that way we educate our children, and ourselves.
  If, however, these particular advances in technology follow the patterns outlined above, the benefits might be outnumbered by the detrimental effects on our lives as educators and as learners.  If computers are going to enter the classroom, will they enhance, replace, or change forever what traditionally goes on inside them? Or will they have an effect none of us could have predicted beforehand ?
  Before such advances are transferred into our lives in the classroom, our motives for wanting such changes should first be examined.  Then the things that already happen in the classroom should be considered in order to ascertain whether in fact we want to change them.  Do we, for example, want to replace the interaction between teacher and student, and that between fellow students with something else?  Do we want to reduce the importance of books in teaching?  Do we want to alter the individual's private domain?  And last but certainly not least, are we able to say with any degree of certainty whether these changes can be controlled ones?
  The personnel often charged with responsibilities in the decision making process when considering whether or not to adopt such technology in classrooms are usually found to be those people least affected by the changes they so eagerly and persuasively propose.
  Technological determinism is not and does not have to be the route educational establishments take, and yet it often is.  Having a modern outlook, or just keeping up with new technology, are all poor reasons masquerading as good ones when it comes to the way we talk ourselves into buying new gismos and installing them in places they probably ought not to be.
  Consultation, a great deal of thought and research, common sense, and honesty should be the watchwords, rather than ones like fashion and modernity.  How we benefit from today's wonderful advances tomorrow will depend on whether we ask the right questions to the right people, and most importantly, whether or not we have the will to say no.
  The vexed question of how new technology is going to affect us, however, is not a new one though.  
  To return, two questions, I have said, need to be addressed.  First, why do we want to introduce technology into our classrooms, and second, do we want to change the things that already happen in the classroom?
  The answer to the first depends to a certain extent upon the answer to the second.  Part of the answer must surely be though, because we want to improve the quality of learning, and this will surely have implications for the type of learning too.  If the answer is anything less than this wish to improve learning, then we should expect other things to be different.
  What goes on in the classroom without digital aids?  Teachers teach, and students learn, or at least that's what should happen.  If this new interface replaces existing ones, can it perform the functions necessary for the conditions of learning to be improved?  Here we would need to say that technological innovations would not necessarily replace all interaction in the classroom.
  Of the four language skills taught in our classrooms, it seems to me that reading and writing could well be aided by the introduction of computers.  This has already happened in many institutions, including our own.  What seems to be lacking in many is some sort of check on whether CAL assists learning or not, and if it does, how much and in what particular direction.  Does, for example, completing cloze-tests on computer screens improve a student's ability to use those structures in his or her own written work.  Merely installing what appear to be learning opportunities does not ensure that they are really of value to learning.
  The provision of a spell checker on a computer does not really mean that a student’s ability to spell correctly improves with the use of the device.  It may only mean that the learner remembers to activate it at certain intervals in his or her writing.  A good thing for one person is not necessarily a good thing for all.  Time is saved for those who can already spell, but time is lost for those who cannot.  Technological innovations in any field do not of themselves mean improvement in our lives.  Remember the TV.
  Students' learning styles and teachers' styles of teaching need to be catered for by applications of new technology in education.  At present, I think it is fair to say that the former is encouraged by educationalists, while the latter is sometimes actively discouraged.  However, if students have different learning styles, then teachers must be both responsive and versatile.  Any change in interface between learner and educator would need to be similarly so.  Such versatility and responsiveness should surely be possible using new technologies in language classrooms.  If this does not happen, it will not be the fault of technology but rather the lack of will to want to install such versatility.  For this seems to be a feature of current thinking on the issue, that
some believe that the introduction of computers in classrooms will enable greater control over what happens in them.  I equate control with power, the power to impose one's views on others.  If those views do not include a wish to retain diversity amongst teachers to facilitate diversity among students, the outcome may be an unintended one.  Remember the TV.                      

                                               Robert L Fielding


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