In ‘Scientia Potentia Est,’ the 7th episode of The Crown, Claire Foy portrays an anguished Queen Elisabeth who is increasingly aware of the disadvantage that her own scientific and technological illiteracy represents. Due to this insight, she decides to do something unprecedented for a woman in her place: she gets a technical education. This historical piece of entertainment can bring up discussions related to the power game that science brings within politics, or to the danger of technological ignorance for someone in a position of authority. For me, however, the most interesting thing was the scene where little Queen to be Elisabeth was attending a lecture almost a century ago. It was astonishing to see how many of the elements used to portray a scene of last century Eaton can be found in any school nowadays: lecture style teaching, notebooks, blackboards, note taking and kids encouraged to be silently attentive. Therefore, in this post I aim to look into the relationship between emerging communication technologies and the classroom and try to understand why the presence of personal gadgets seems to be increasing everywhere but at school.
Let’s start by looking at the effect that personal gadgets can have on the current teaching model. “The Laptop and the Lecture” is a study from Cornell University that shows that having access to personal gadgets, such as laptops, during lecture time is inconvenient for learning. Two student groups were given the same lecture. One group was able to use gadgets during the session and the other wasn’t. Right after the lecture, the students were given an examination on the covered material. The performance of the group without access to personal gadgets was significantly higher. What does this imply? From this perspective technology seems to be disruptive for teaching. But why is having access to an almost unlimited amount of information so detrimental to education?
In Science Is Not Your Enemy Steven Prinker claims that humanists resent the intrusion of science in their fields. What is education but a purely human activity? It would seem that the best policy for the classroom is to close the doors to technology since it is a barrier for the way knowledge is delivered. Nevertheless, as Prinker proposes for the case of politics, the application of science and technology to education could open up the known system to new ideas and models that could benefit different actors within the education process.
A remarkable example of this possibility is the project Can’t wait to learn by UNICEF. More than 25 million children have no access to education because of war or due to their refugee status. This project uses cheap and powerful tablets to assist populations without access to the traditional education system. The aim of this project is not to substitute schools but to provide education where it cannot be reached. This is a case in which technology allows people in extreme circumstances, such as those imposed by war, to go beyond the barriers of the traditional education system, e.g. the need of classroom space, trained teachers, time availability and money. Then, it is appealing to propose that technology can be the answer to all or many human problems. In this specific example one could say that teachers or classrooms are not needed anymore and that universal education could be achieved with a mass production of iPads. Nonetheless, it is not the same to assess and regulate quality of education in a school within a peaceful area than in a war zone. After all, unregulated and arbitrary education is better than no education at all.
What we can understand from these examples is that the regulation of science and technology must consider the context in which the rules are being made. In Three rules for technological fixes, Sarewitz and Nelson suggest that technology is likely to be useful tool to solve social problems as long as innovation pursues a clear and standardized objective. In the case of education, this would imply that, as long as there was a stablished and globally accepted school model, technology could come in to help achieving a specific agenda. Education, however, seems to need a human input that goes beyond the tools used to assist it. For instance, there are experiments that prove that pen-and-paper writing is more efficient than typing for memory gaining.
Then, it could be the case that the structure of education itself needs to be revisited before thinking of the appropriate way to allow technology into the classroom. In a provocative article, George Monbiot challenges the way education is delivered today. He quotes Graham Brown-Martin by stating that we are perpetuating a school modeled designed in the 19th century to produce the required workforce for factories. He also claims that the system is compromising the future of the younger generations because the skills that are needed for the 21st century, such as creativity, critical thinking or emotional intelligence are not taught at schools. Moreover, he declares that any attempt to challenge this reality is “demonized” and labeled as social engineering. Even if this position could seem arbitrary, it is true that the relationship people have with technology today is very different to how it was in the 19th century, and that the demands of the labor market nowadays are not the same to those of the times of the Industrial Revolution.
Therefore, we are left with the question of how to deal better with the presence of technologies at schools. This post is clearly not the place to find a final answer to that question, but I would like to leave you with some points raised in the remarkable article by Sheila Jasanoff, Technologies of Humility. She proposes that, in order to design technology policies that benefit society, one has to think about the way we frame our relationship with technology, how it makes us more vulnerable, who is benefitting from using the technology and how can we learn from the decisions made so far. Before asking things like ‘should I or should I not allow students to bring their laptops to class?’. Maybe what one should be asking is things like ‘is there a way to bring a lecture and practical exercise together through the use of internet browsing?’. Maybe if we started changing the way we ask these questions we could start using the available technology at school instead of fighting against it.