Peter Lyons: Technology must earn its place in schools

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Students with brand new iPads. Photo / APN
Students with brand new iPads. Photo / APN

Teaching has changed in recent decades. One of the biggest changes has been the influences of technology in the classroom in both a physical and attitudinal sense.

Students have a need to be constantly connected. Cellphones, iPads, the internet, Facebook and other social media are shaping our youth. We all attempt to march with it, yet there is little discussion as to its positive and negative influences, particularly in formal education.

It is part of the human march of progress that has dominated our mindset from the enlightenment era. Philosopher John Grey believes the mantra of progress has gradually replaced the Christian doctrine since the Reformation in Western Society.

It is part of the human condition to yearn for a Utopia to give meaning to our lives. The Christian belief of a blissful afterlife has largely been replaced by an ill-defined Utopia offered by material progress in a secular age. We are conditioned to believe we are all destined for some sort of blissful existence as individuals and eventually as a society.

We seldom discuss whether all aspects of material progress actually benefit our lives rather than narrow them.

What this has meant is that our education system has become geared towards conditioning our youth to take part in the quest for material success. They are being programmed to perform their roles in an economic system where the ultimate goals are money, status and power.

They are constantly bombarded with images of what it means to be a success in such a world. They are also being conditioned to always be connected. A lack of technological connection suggests isolation, loneliness and being an outsider. Solitude and contemplation are almost frowned upon as the realm of losers. Being defriended on Facebook is a major social humiliation, yet Facebook didn't exist 15 years ago.

Our education system seldom asks students to consider what a good life is. Yet this should be the essence of a truly liberating education. What is the best way to live your life should be the foremost consideration of education, otherwise we are preparing rats for a race and cogs for a machine.

This is why the teaching of liberal arts such as history, philosophy and literature are essential in producing real thinkers rather than worker drones.

How often do we lament the quality of teachers or the need to have better assessment and higher standards without asking what are we teaching and why we are teaching it? We throw money at the latest technology to enhance the learning process, yet seldom question what we teach and why.

The youth of today are no different in their idealism, anxieties, goodness, faults and naivety than previous generations.

What has changed is the bombardment of external images and distractions. Many are conditioned to get meaning and identity from irrelevant associations with such exotic entities as Manchester United or Real Madrid. This new form of tribalism is a product of the wired age. Details about player statistics and fixture results are exchanged with glee to demonstrate an informed knowledge which is ultimately as useful as discussing daily cloud formations.

Schools are now encouraging their students to bring their technology devices to school. The assumption is these devices will enhance learning rather than allow distraction. Schools fear being left behind in the technology arms race. It is important that technology is embraced in the learning process. So students go from home-based screens and devices to a similar mode of interacting at school. Technology is progress and progress must be good.

There is definitely a role for technology in education but it should be just one tool of choice for educators rather than a requirement. There is nothing more ridiculous than a teacher using a PowerPoint presentation that students are then required to copy down. I have experienced numerous presentations on the joys of using IT in the classroom that have been held up by equipment failure. The presenter is unwilling to engage the audience without a visual prop.The use of video clips in classrooms as a reward for a willingness to learn suggests a curriculum that is failing to engage.

Rather than schools and parents pouring endless funds into technology that will always tend to obsolescence, to enhance learning we should be constantly discussing the curriculum for its relevancy. We should be sharing ideas about delivery and teaching strategies as well as debating the important core values in our society. Instead we obsess about assessment and measurability of outcomes. When it comes to technology in education, the medium seems to have become the message.

Peter Lyons teaches economics at St Peter's College in Epsom and has written several economics texts. Deborah Hill Cone is on leave.

- NZ Herald

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