On the Evils of Technology in Academia

by Vicky Phillips
Source: http://www.geteducated.com

A reporter called me the other day with one question: "Are you for or against the virtual university?"

After a big sigh I replied that I am for any little thing that might possibly improve education in this country.

"Does online technology improve education?" he asked.

"That depends entirely on who is using it," said I.

Here is what I think. Anyone who says that technology will either save or corrupt the American college system is flinging fat red herrings off impossibly high intellectual rooftops. Let me explain.

I had the worst academic experience of my life as a wide-eyed freshman in Indiana in 1977 -- the Ed Tech Dark Ages. I had to take courses via warm-body-instruction because no other option existed. I did not own a laptop computer because no such thing existed. Computers would not fit into anyone’s lap back then; to be honest, they barely fit into stadium-sized computer science buildings.

On campus at a small, private, liberal arts college, my freshman year, I had a tenured, Ivy League-educated professor for a course in the History of the Civil War. This professor never bathed, came to class drunk, incessantly referred to me -- the only girl in the class -- as "chickee baby," and taught not the social and economic history of the civil war -- which I had come to learn -- but the great winning military battle strategies of the 1860s as taught to him in his days as a West Point cadet.



It was a very long semester. The hardest "A" of my intellectual life. I won that "A" battle by battle -- and I do mean that quite literally.

I learned that semester the proper way to bayonet a foe from horseback. I also learned that not all professors were the intellectual gods I had naively imagined them to be. I learned that semester that John Henry Newman’s concept of the university as a great "Alma Mater" or bountiful intellectual mother was perhaps more of a sentimental Victorian ideal than anything else.

More importantly, I learned that a liberal arts education in this country is truly open to anyone. Visionaries, geniuses, and madwomen -- come one, come all. And I learned that this wide range of intellectual aptitude applies as equally to the professorate as it does to the student body.

My point is that my civil war professor taught poorly for 50 years using the no-tech tools of chalk and slate. I dare say had he been given a modem he would have proved no less intellectually deadly.

Likewise, I have recently seen students ground into intellectual road-kill by poorly designed keyboard colleges. Just this semester I advised a colleague of mine to take an online course in computer programming from a leading university provider of online education in this country.



My colleague may never figure me. She was kind enough to show me the entire course in action, online. Well, "in action" is probably the wrong term: educationally inert describes it all much better.

"Where are the instructor’s comments?" I asked. "What instructor?" she asked. Every week the instructor would e-mail my colleague some Power Point slides. Just the slides. No comment on what they were meant to refer to, no reference as to why they were sent. She showed the slides to me. "Do these help you learn?" I asked her. "No," she said, "They must be pulled from his face-to-face course lectures because they do not correspond to what I’m reading here on my own."

Halfway through the course my colleague finally e-mailed the instructor, who had been dutifully collecting weekly assignments, but not grading them, to ask about her status. Ten days later she got an e-mail that read: "You hav an a. God jobe." Except for the baffling Power Point slides, this was the first and last my colleague heard from her online professor.

Though online discussion boards existed for posting questions, only the students used the boards. The instructor never typed-in a word of commentary or concern.



My colleagues impression of an online university is that she took a course and dutifully did her part but that no professor ever actually showed up to assist, mentor, inform, evaluate, or encourage her. She found this odd. I do too.

In my mind what my colleague received online was a high-tech and somewhat high-priced version of "chickee baby." My point here: technology does not teach, people do. Not all bad professors teach via modem and not all good instructors are without the tools of technology. America’s universities may be built of brick-and-mortar or they may be built of silicon chips: clearly we will have it both ways in this country because we need it both ways.

Brick-and-mortar is great for 18 year-olds who need the social emancipation experience that place-bound education delivers in large doses. Desktop universities are sorely needed by 42 year-old single, working mothers who literally cannot stuff themselves, their children, and the family dog back into a brick-and-mortar dormitory.

Technology and education have always been uneasy bedfellows. People write and speak as if technology in education is a unique new danger for the next millennium. It is not. When the printing press popularized written texts many warned that education via printed books would ruin the academy because it would mean that people would read, write, and memorize rather than speak and debate -- the original methods of classical instruction honored in both Greece and Rome and, as far as we know, for all of human prehistory.



When the printed text entered academia, students and professors alike lost much of their ability to think and reason on their feet. Teaching critical thinking via in-class debate fell rapidly by the wayside. And that’s a shame. On the other hand, both professors and students gained the ability to create more lasting, complex, and portable arguments and investigations via writing and print technology.

The printed book was the first virtual university. A technological marvel that allowed for the transcontinental transmission of knowledge. Think about it. A printed book is a first-class distance learning experience: a class in full swing without the professor present. Talk about distance learning: the printed book delivers to students the ideas of those long dead. Yet in the early days of academia the mass distribution of knowledge via printed books was denounced as technological high evil by many.

The fountain pen for quick note-taking. The printed teaching text. The CD-ROM course pack. And now Internet conferencing systems. Each time a new tool has made in-roads into academia the nature of education has changed. Not gotten better or worse, mind you, just changed.



America’s universities will be built of brick-and-mortar AND they will be built of silicon chips. We will have it both ways because we live in a knowledge society that desperately needs it both ways. When it comes to learning in a knowledge society, once is not enough. Education must be a lifelong pursuit. Portable universities will increasingly pop-up inside laptop computers.

Dr. Thomas A. Clark, co-author of the classic book, "Distance Education: The Foundations of Effective Practice," once wrote: "(Educational) media are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but (they) do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in nutrition."

Whether students learn anything of use at the universities of tomorrow will not depend on the edifice of the institution itself. Bigger buildings have never made better scholars. The quality of education in tomorrow’s universities will depend, as always, not on the physical edifice, but on the quality of thought and heart that goes into designing and delivering the overall educational experience.

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