Does the Digital Classroom Enfeeble the Mind?

Posted by jcmaziquemd on September 22, 2010

Adding to an already rich life, my father decided in middle age to become an elementary-school teacher in a working-class neighborhood in New Mexico. To this day, people who run grocery stores and work on construction sites, and who are now in late middle age themselves, come out when I’m visiting to tell me how Mr. Lanier changed their lives. Go up to any adult with a good life, no matter what his or her station, and ask if a teacher made a difference, and you’ll always see a face light up. The human element, a magical connection, is at the heart of successful education, and you can’t bottle it.

My father would have been unable to “teach to the test.” He once complained about errors in a sixth-grade math textbook, so he had the class learn math by designing a spaceship. My father would have been spat out by today’s test-driven educational regime.

But this is not the whole story. Probe one of those illuminated faces further, and you can also usually elicit memories of a particularly bad teacher. It’s a romantic notion, the magic of teaching, but magic always has a dark side. Trusting teachers too much also has its perils. For every good teacher who is too creative to survive in the era of “no child left behind,” there’s probably another tenacious, horrid teacher who might be dethroned only because of unquestionably bad outcomes on objective tests.

So we face a quandary: How do we use the technologies of computation, statistics and networking to shed light — without killing the magic? This is more than a practical question. It goes to the heart of what we are after as humans.

A career in computer science makes you see the world in its terms. You start to see money as a form of information display instead of as a store of value. Money flows are the computational output of a lot of people planning, promising, evaluating, hedging and scheming, and those behaviors start to look like a set of algorithms. You start to see the weather as a computer processing bits tweaked by the sun, and gravity as a cosmic calculation that keeps events in time and space consistent.

This way of seeing is becoming ever more common as people have experiences with computers. While it has its glorious moments, the computational perspective can at times be uniquely unromantic.

Nothing kills music for me as much as having some algorithm calculate what music I will want to hear. That seems to miss the whole point. Inventing your musical taste is the point, isn’t it? Bringing computers into the middle of that is like paying someone to program a robot to have sex on your behalf so you don’t have to.

And yet it seems we benefit from shining an objectifying digital light to disinfect our funky, lying selves once in a while. It’s heartless to have music chosen by digital algorithms. But at least there are fewer people held hostage to the tastes of bad radio D.J.’s than there once were. The trick is being ambidextrous, holding one hand to the heart while counting on the digits of the other.

How can you be ambidextrous in the matter of technology and education? Education — in the broadest sense — does what genes can’t do. It forever filters and bequeaths memories, ideas, identities, cultures and technologies. Humans compute and transfer nongenetic information between generations, creating a longitudinal intelligence that is unlike anything else on Earth. The data links that hold the structure together in time swell rhythmically to the frequency of human regeneration. This is education.

Now we have information machines. The future of education in the digital age will be determined by our judgment of which aspects of the information we pass between generations can be represented in computers at all. If we try to represent something digitally when we actually can’t, we kill the romance and make some aspect of the human condition newly bland and absurd. If we romanticize information that shouldn’t be shielded from harsh calculations, we’ll suffer bad teachers and D.J.’s and their wares.

Right now, many of these decisions are being made by the geeks of Silicon Valley, who run a lot of things that other people pretend to run. The crucial choice of which intergenerational information is to be treated as computational grist is usually not made by educators or curriculum developers but by young engineers.

The results are mixed. There is a youthful energy applied to some questions, like how to rate teachers. It would be wonderful if computation remained forever associated with youth. Maybe that will happen, and in a hundred years, or a thousand, algorithms and databases will conjure spring flings and all-night parties.

The geeks often get things wrong, however. In some cases, simple design solutions can fix problems that geeks have created. An example is concern over the effects of constant mental multitasking. If this problem turns out to be serious in the long term, it can probably be addressed by small changes to digital designs. For instance, maybe it will cost a penny every time you look at your Facebook wall in the future, so you’ll have to actually be aware of when you do it.

The deeper concern, for me, is the philosophy conveyed by a technological design. Some of the top digital designs of the moment, both in school and in the rest of life, embed the underlying message that we understand the brain and its workings. That is false. We don’t know how information is represented in the brain. We don’t know how reason is accomplished by neurons. There are some vaguely cool ideas floating around, and we might know a lot more about these things any moment now, but at this moment, we don’t.

You could spend all day reading literature about educational technology without being reminded that this frontier of ignorance lies before us. We are tempted by the demons of commercial and professional ambition to pretend we know more than we do. This hypnotic idea of omniscience could kill the magic of teaching, because of the intimacy with which we let computers guide our brains.

At school, standardized testing rules. Outside school, something similar happens. Students spend a lot of time acting as trivialized relays in giant schemes designed for the purposes of advertising and other revenue-minded manipulations. They are prompted to create databases about themselves and then trust algorithms to assemble streams of songs and movies and stories for their consumption.

We see the embedded philosophy bloom when students assemble papers as mash-ups from online snippets instead of thinking and composing on a blank piece of screen. What is wrong with this is not that students are any lazier now or learning less. (It is probably even true, I admit reluctantly, that in the presence of the ambient Internet, maybe it is not so important anymore to hold an archive of certain kinds of academic trivia in your head.)

The problem is that students could come to conceive of themselves as relays in a transpersonal digital structure. Their job is then to copy and transfer data around, to be a source of statistics, whether to be processed by tests at school or by advertising schemes elsewhere.

What is really lost when this happens is the self-invention of a human brain. If students don’t learn to think, then no amount of access to information will do them any good.

I am a technologist, and so my first impulse might be to try to fix this problem with better technology. But if we ask what thinking is, so that we can then ask how to foster it, we encounter an astonishing and terrifying answer: We don’t know.

The artifacts of our past accomplishments can become so engrossing in digital form that it can be harder to notice all we don’t know and all we haven’t done. While technology has generally been the engine that propels us into unknowable changes, it might now lull us into hypnotic complacency.

To the degree that education is about the transfer of the known between generations, it can be digitized, analyzed, optimized and bottled or posted on Twitter. To the degree that education is about the self-invention of the human race, the gargantuan process of steering billions of brains into unforeseeable states and configurations in the future, it can continue only if each brain learns to invent itself. And that is beyond computation because it is beyond our comprehension. Learning at its truest is a leap into the unknown.

Roughly speaking, there are two ways to use computers in the classroom. You can have them measure and represent the students and the teachers, or you can have the class build a virtual spaceship. Right now the first way is ubiquitous, but the virtual spaceships are being built only by tenacious oddballs in unusual circumstances. More spaceships, please.

Jaron Lanier, a partner architect at Microsoft Research and the innovator in residence at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, is the author, most recently, of “You Are Not a Gadget.”


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