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Friday
Feb102006

Are virtual experiences driving out real life experiences?

Lowell Monke in Not OK Computer, appearing in the February 5 Toronto Star, follows Larry Cuban,  Diane Healy, and especially The Alliance for Childhood folks presenting a condemnation of the use of computers in education. (This article has appeared in other incarnations in several publications, including Education Next and Orion, under the title "Charlotte's Webpage.")

Blue Skunk blog readers know that I appreciate technology cynics, being one myself not too far beneath the surface, and that one is far better prepared reading one's critics than one's friends. Do take a look at Monke's rather interesting, though overblown concerns including:

...the computer has not been able to show a consistent record of improving education.

As measured by standardized test scores. Improving test scores is not the same as improving education. 

...the first troubling influence of computers: The medium is so compelling that it lures children away from the kind of activities through which they have always most effectively discovered themselves and their place in the world. 

This sounds like a "digital immigrant" statement. Aren't kids discovering themselves and their places in the virtual world? What makes this medium so compelling exactly? Worth asking ourselves. 

Structured learning certainly has its place. But if it crowds out direct, unmediated engagement with the world, it undercuts a child's education. Children learn the fragility of flowers by touching their petals. They learn to cooperate by organizing their own games. The computer cannot simulate the physical and emotional nuances of resolving a dispute during kickball, or the creativity of inventing new rhymes to the rhythm of jumping rope. These full-bodied, often deeply heartfelt experiences educate not just the intellect but also the soul of the child.

My observation is that students engage in structured computer use to much lesser extent than unmediated use - especially outside of school. 

Computers not only divert students from recess and other unstructured experiences but also replace those authentic experiences with virtual ones. According to surveys by the Kaiser Family Foundation and others, school-age children spend, on average, around five hours a day in front of screens for recreational purposes. All that screen time is supplemented by the hundreds of impressive computer projects now taking place in schools. Yet these projects — the steady diet of virtual trips to the Antarctic, virtual climbs to the summit of Mount Everest, and trips into cyber-orbit that represent one technological high after another — generate only vicarious thrills. The student doesn't actually soar above the Earth, doesn't trek across icy terrain, doesn't climb a mountain. Increasingly, she isn't even allowed to climb to the top of the jungle gym.

So, if one can't really climb Mt. Everest in real time, one shouldn't climb it at all?  And we certainly wouldn't want kids experience anything in education that might be considered thrilling.

...after engaging in Internet projects, students came back down to the Earth of their immediate surroundings with boredom and disinterest — and a desire to get back online. 

Is this a condemnation of technology or current F2F teaching practices?

Keep in mind that a computer always has a hidden pedagogue — the programmer — who designed the software and invisibly controls the options available to students at every step of the way. If they try to think "outside the box," the box either refuses to respond or replies with an error message. The students must first surrender to the computer's hyper-rational form of "thinking" before they are awarded any control at all.

 I am surprised by this statement. I've found that technology is popular with kids because it gives them the tools and allows them to be creative. Monke's kids and Mankato's must be using different software.

We hand even our smallest children enormously powerful machines long before they have the moral capacities to use them properly. Then to assure that our children don't slip past the electronic fences we erect around them, we rely on yet other technologies or fear of draconian punishments. This is not the way to prepare youth for membership in a democratic society that eschews authoritarian control.

I agree with concern. At a very basic level, why are allowing kids who can't read and understand our AUP to use the Internet? No comment about "a democratic society that eschews authoritarian control" and warrentless wiretapping.

In the preface to his thoughtful book The Whale and the Reactor, Langdon Winner writes, "I am convinced that any philosophy of technology worth its salt must eventually ask, `How can we limit modern technology to match our best sense of who we are and the kind of world we would like to build?'"

Unfortunately, our schools too often default to the inverse of that question: "How can we limit human beings to match the best use of what our technology can do and the kind of world it will build?" As a consequence, our children are likely to sustain this process of alienation — in which they treat themselves, other people, and the Earth instrumentally — in a vain attempt to materially fill up lives crippled by internal emptiness. We should not be surprised when they "solve" personal and social problems by turning to drugs, guns, hateful Web logs, or other powerful tools, rather than digging deep within themselves or searching out others in the community for strength and support. After all, this is what we have taught them to do.

  Where Monke sees isolation others see "social networking." Goodness, an awful lot of consequences to assign to a little box of silicon and plastic. Why am I skeptical about the computer being the root of evil?

The author makes some great points in this article here - too bad he so overstates the problems that the kernels of truth are lost in the hype.

BTW, I, like Mr. Monke, grew up on an Iowa farm. His recollections are far more idyllic than my own.

In my case, belonging hinged most decisively on place. I knew our farm — where the snowdrifts would be the morning after a blizzard, where and when the spring runoff would create a temporary stream through the east pasture. I could tell you where I was by the smells alone. Watching a massive thunderstorm build in the west, or discovering a new litter of kittens in the barn, I would be awestruck, mesmerized by mysterious wonders I could not control. One of the few moments I remember from elementary school is watching a huge black-and-yellow garden spider climb out of Lee Anfinson's pant cuff after we came back from a field trip picking wildflowers. It set the whole class in motion with lively conversation and completely flummoxed our crusty old teacher. Somehow that spider spoke to all of us wide-eyed third graders, and we couldn't help but speak back.

The farm I grew up on, my "place," had a lot more manure that needed scooping, endless bean fields that needed walking, and was a far away from adventure as a place could possibly be. I don't remember Mr. Monke's sense of wonder. Apparently I was shallow even as a child.

Greetings from the ISTE Board meeting in Austin this weekend.  

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References (1)

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Reader Comments (2)

Couldn't you say the same thing about reading a book? I inserted parenthesis in quote below. I guess reading is dangerous too - unless you use it "correctly." Hmmm...what about drawing - look what a few drawings have caused in Europe and the Middle East.

"Yet these (books)projects — the steady diet of virtual trips to the Antarctic, virtual climbs to the summit of Mount Everest, and trips into cyber-orbit that represent one technological (literary) high after another — generate only vicarious thrills. The student doesn't actually soar above the Earth, doesn't trek across icy terrain, doesn't climb a mountain. Increasingly, she isn't even allowed to climb to the top of the jungle gym."
February 12, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Crosby
so what is the thesis of this article? i have trouble finding it out.

Nice post!
February 20, 2006 | Unregistered CommenterColin

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