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When Will They Learn?
A professor offers his take on the dangers of technology use.

Viewpoint ArticleWhen I first began teaching at Queensborough Community College 34 years ago, I had a student who was a grade-school teacher. The first generation of kids exposed to "educational television" was entering his classroom. Are they better students, I asked? Is this great pedagogical experiment a success?

"They know their letters," he said. "But unless I come out dressed as a giant chicken, they will no longer pay attention to what I am trying to teach them. They now come to class expecting to be entertained. They think school is going to be like watching TV."

My school--like so many other institutions that are seeking to provide the best quality opportunity for learning for their students--has provided wireless networking throughout the campus. Classrooms are internet accessible. Smart classrooms are being outfitted. Digital audiovisual capabilities boggle the mind: digital projectors, DVD, PowerPoint presentations, interactive "blackboards," online courses, class-referenced websites, distance learning.

Our capacity to entertain our students will soon rival DreamWorks. Unfortunately, there is a difference between entertainment and learning, between sensation and experience.

Experiences change us. We see a play, climb a mountain, visit a foreign city, go to war, have a child--or struggle to reach any grasp-exceeding goal--and we are changed. Such experiences don't need to be repeated; we are different people for having gone through them once and the change is permanent.

Sensation, on the other hand, is something that merely happens to us; it's more like a stimulus that momentarily alters our state of mind, perception, or awareness. But when that stimulus is removed, the sensation will fade. Sensations need to be constantly renewed, re-experienced, and repeated in life.

Drugs, amusement park rides, computer games, MTV videos, televised sports, and even the television evening news are all activities with no lasting effect. They are, in fact, designed to be transitory. Their profitability lies in their renewability, like medications that ameliorate symptoms but never heal the underlying condition.

School should offer students the opportunity for experience, rather than fleeting sensations. Attending school should change them. Significantly, the digital wizardry now being installed in campuses around the country was developed as the quintessential delivery system for sensations, not experience.

Change does not occur without resistance. It requires work, sometimes sacrifice, even hardship, to achieve. There is an old saying among writers: "Writing is easy--you just sit and stare at the keyboard until your forehead bleeds." Writing, like learning, is an activity of the mind, and the mind is the principal tool of education.

Today, word processors have become the universal tool for writing. However, the facility with which they edit words is not to be confused with the writing process. When, while I was a college student, I wrote a term paper on a typewriter, I had to write multiple drafts. Unquestionably, this was drudgery.

Today, word processors allow us to edit with ease. Like the washing machine and vacuum cleaner, they have reduced the necessity for apparently a tedious and repetitive task. Yet, each time I rewrote the paper, I also rethought what I was writing--it was part of the process.

Mindful Learning

We all know that when acquiring a new skill, such as playing baseball, drawing, learning a musical instrument, or writing, repetitive tasks done mindfully (like batting practice, musical scales, or rewrites) are essential to the learning process. Word processors as teaching tools can undermine this learning as they do not demand by their nature that we rethink our work. They can make it seem that the creation of a finished, polished product lies in the appearance of the page, not the content of the ideas, or the clarity and precision of the writing.

I have had students who went online, downloaded whole paragraphs that they recognized as relevant, and then pasted them in their entirety into a paper. These blocked and pasted sections (perfectly formatted and spell checked) sometimes contained words, even whole phrases, they didn't understand and may never actually have read.

The word processor is an extraordinarily powerful and valuable writing and editing tool for someone who already possesses the thinking skills required for good writing. However, its power to facilitate the easy and potentially mindless manipulation of words, sentences, even whole paragraphs can make it an impediment to developing the mental discipline and linguistic precision that are the essence of good writing.

In teaching photography, I would say the same thing about automatic cameras. Photography is at heart a visual language. Contrary to marketing hype and popular expectations, the camera does not communicate the experience of the photographer automatically. Photography, like writing, is foremost a process of the mind, a way of seeing. Anybody who has had to look at someone else's vacation photographs knows that wonderful or interesting experiences do not translate automatically into wonderful and interesting photographs. Automatic cameras simply magnify a person's ability to generate more of the same with less effort.

Passively taking in information is not experience. It can be sensation. You only have to watch the nightly news to see how it is transformed into entertainment.

Philosopher John Locke took the position in his 1689 dissertation on cognition, "An Essay Concerning Human Understanding," that we don't know the world directly; we only know our ideas about the world and these ideas are based (either correctly or incorrectly) on the input of our five senses. Locke then wondered if there was any means by which we could be certain that there was any conformity between these ideas and "the reality of things."

My generation (over 50) formed its ideas of the world essentially through experience. Information was available, but had to be sought. Today we are barraged with it, and our ideas about "the reality of things" are being formed increasingly (and for a growing number exclusively) by information alone.

The danger is that information isolated from experience can be mediated--even manipulated--if there is no experience to test or verify its relevance or accuracy. Movies like Wag the Dog play on this idea, spin doctors exploit it, and the would-be designers of virtual reality aspire to its totality.

Our students are used to a world where information and sensation flow over them, where digitally enhanced "Big Birds" hold their attention through PowerPoint presentations and Gatling gun imagery. But where is the learning? How do these technologies make possible the educational experiences that will change them? PowerPoint applications allow an instructor to present important ideas in a simple and clear outline form, one filled with eye-catching images and attention-grabbing sound effects.

But this is not the same as taking notes. Note-taking requires the student to distill a complex lecture into simple ideas that contain the essence of the knowledge being communicated.

The process of distillation, or thinking about the meaning of what is heard and then writing it down, is part of the learning process. PowerPoint presentations may provide the distillation, but to the extent that they eliminate the necessity for the student to do the work of distilling the concepts and ideas themselves, they undermine the learning process. They offer sensation, not experience--Sesame Street's Big Bird has come home to roost.

There is, without doubt, a growing and increasingly valuable role for technology to play on campus and in education, but there is also a danger. Learning, like any experience that has the potential to change us, requires work.

The digital toys that attempt to turn this work into play and/or entertainment --and to which students have been increasingly trained by marketing and the media not only to expect but demand as a lifestyle--may be of less value to them, to education, and to the larger society than we hope.

Bob Rogers has taught photography for 34 years at Queensborough Community College in New York, a branch of City University of New York. He is currently an associate professor.

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