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