“Why technology will never fix education”

Why technology will never fix education” is a 2015 article that’s also absurdly relevant in the COVID era of distance education, and this paragraph in particular resonates with my teaching experience:

The real obstacle in education remains student motivation. Especially in an age of informational abundance, getting access to knowledge isn’t the bottleneck, mustering the will to master it is. And there, for good or ill, the main carrot of a college education is the certified degree and transcript, and the main stick is social pressure. Most students are seeking credentials that graduate schools and employers will take seriously and an environment in which they’re prodded to do the work. But neither of these things is cheaply available online.

For the last few years, I’ve often asked students to look at their phones’s “Screen Time” (iOS) or “Digital Wellbeing” (Android) apps. These apps measure how much time a person spends using their phone each day, and most students report 3 – 7 hours per day on their phones. The top apps are usually Instagram, SnapChat, and Facebook. Student often laugh bashfully at the sheer number of hours they spend on their phones, and some later confess they’re abashed. I ask the same thing when students tell me how “busy” they are during office hours (no one ever says they’re not busy). So far, both the data and anecdotes I’ve seen or heard support the “ban connected devices in class” position I’ve held for a while. The greatest discipline needed today seems to be the discipline not to stare relentlessly at the phone.

But what happens when class comes from a connected, distraction-laden device?

In my experience so far, the online education experience hasn’t been great, although it went better than I feared, and I think that, as norms shift, we’ll see online education become more effective. But the big hurdle remains motivation, not information. And I too find teaching via Zoom (or similar, presumably) unsatisfying, because it seems that concentration and motivation are harder on it. Perhaps online education is just increasing the distance between highly structured and self-motivated people versus everyone else.


3 responses

  1. Over the years I’ve read up on the advent of television in the late 1940s and 1950s. TV was hyped as an educational and cultural tool that could bridge distant communities and bring culture to far-flung places. Why, someone in tiny Rockfish, Virginia, could see a performance from the finest opera houses in Italy! Well into the 1970s, you can still find TV writers hoping that the medium can elevate and humanize. I suppose it can, here and there, as any medium can, if you filter out “Finding Bigfoot” and “Celebrity Ghost Stories” and whatever this week’s streaming fad may be.

    Public broadcasting was created in the late 1960s with the stated intention of bringing high culture and educational programming to poor people and minority groups. It only took around 30 years for both public radio and public TV to be captured by a large white, affluent, college-educated audience for their own entertainment. Meanwhile, certain individuals like Bill Moyers used the system as a springboard for lucrative book deals and affiliates of certain nonprofits (like the Sesame Street folks) made a fortune on toy licensing. Our biggest local NPR station, which once aired afternoon bluegrass and quirky local discussion shows about books, culture, and tech, now has almost no local programming, only 24 hours of nationally produced news and discussions of current events.

    Somewhere I have an audio recording of a show that aired on NPR in the 1970s: a two-hour reading of “Beowulf” in translation, with a bit of Old English to give listeners a sense of the original, interspersed with commentary and interpretation by scholars. That’s hilariously unimaginable today. In a couple of decades we may find that our society’s hopes for online education are similarly naive.

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    • One of the more interesting and maybe prescient books I’ve read is Amusing Ourselves to Death , which, I think, first came out in the ’80s. Though some examples are dated the main ideas seem more relevant than ever.

      Regarding NPR and so forth, maybe all the quirky local programming and Italian operas have moved to YouTube, freeing up public stations to do whatever it is they do now. Good podcasts are so much better than public radio that I quit public radio a long time ago.

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  2. The residential college has been becoming an anachronism for the last 40 years. Modern communications and transportation technology have removed the “world away” from the commercial climes bringing diversions into the dorms, and now classrooms, or in the case of transportation, off-campus diversions.

    But much of the angst is not new, just the specifics. A few years ago, I found Scribner’s Magazine vol 73 (1923) on the internet archive [identifier: scribnersmag73editmiss]. It has several good articles on the problems with higher ed. From “Under Glass” by Percy Marks, delving into the real benefits of college, to ‘Are Our Universities Overpopulated?’ by Henry Pritchett, considering the complexities of mixing the undergraduate college with its social, athletic, and competitive emphasis with the university of professional and graduate schools devoted to scholarly pursuits.

    For example, this trend has not abated over the last century as Pritchett hoped:

    “The graduate schools, apart from the professional schools, have suffered in considerable measure from the fact that they have been attended by a large body of students who are not primarily scholars or investigators. For the last twenty or thirty years every ambitious American college has felt that it could not maintain fair academic dignity unless its teachers were able to write after their names Ph.D. The graduate schools have been invaded, therefore, during the comparatively short period of their existence by an army of degree-hunters who desired the degree of Doctor of Philosophy as a preliminary to obtaining positions as teachers.”

    Liked by 1 person

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