The Techno-Utopian Perspective
The optimistists or "techno-utopians" suggest that new technologies are enhancing and improving educational opportunities. Though some of these authors may believe that there are some limitations to computer technology, they are all extremely optimistic that computer technology is leading us to a better and brighter future, and that it offers many promises for the field of education.
Michael Dertouzos has headed MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science since 1974. He devotes Chapter 8 of this book to the topic of "Learning."Although he establishes at the outset that" it is unclear whether computer and communications technologies help the learning process in a fundamental way," he believes that "it is an application of groupwork tools to learning, which may well be the pivotal technology to yield long-awaited breakthroughs in education."Like Nicholas Negroponte (see below), he credits Seymor Papert, a professor of mathematics at MIT, for unlocking "a whole new world of 'learner-driven learning'." In the early 1970s, Papert developed a new programming language called Logo, which allowed children to program the movements of a mechanical turtle, and thus learn geometry, English, and computer programming all in one setting. Dertouzas warns that we must not adopt information technology in the schools from the motivation to appear modern, or on the naive assumption that if it deployed en masse, that education will blossom. He does believe, however, that computers are well suited to assist teachers with some of the administrative tasks of assigning and collecting homework, and to offer students a wealth of online references to use in completing homework (such as the "Electric Library," a service of Infonautics). Dertouzas is also fond of "simulators," which are especially good for assisting with mechanistic and kinetic training, such as learning how to operate an airplane. He suggests that automated tutors will be especially useful in teaching illiterate adults to learn to read and write, since one of the biggest obstacles that illiterate adults face is overcoming their embarrassment in admitting they can't do something that the average child can do. Someday, Dertouzas writes, we may be able to learn from "automated apprenticeships." For example, someone could learn architecture under the supervision of a synthetic version of Frank Lloyd Wright. This will not be possible, however, until computers are able to exhibit nearly humanlike understanding. A glimpse of science fiction? Perhaps, but Dertouzas is serious when he suggests that it would be wise to start collecting the approaches, reasoning, and preferred methods for critiquing students' works from the grand masters of today--so that someday they might become virtually immortal.
Dertouzas's take on distance education is measured. Although he believes that it represents a "simultaneous expansion of the student market for schools and the school market for students," he cautions that "teachers' dedication and ability will still be the most important educational tool." In addition, he suggests that students need community and "the opportunity to become motivated by role models of fellow students and teachers," an ingredient that even distance education will need to learn how to replicate in order to be successful. Still, Dertouzas concludes the chapter on the note that "a breakthrough is in the making" in the field of computer-assisted education, and dreams of the day when we might benefit from a "world heritage library" that stores in electronic form every nation's contributions to literature. (ST)
Nicholas Negroponte is a professor of Media Technology at MIT, and the founding director of the Media Lab, where he has experimented with using computers in the educational process. He is optimistic that "the Internet provides a new medium for reaching out to find knowledge and meaning." In Chapter 16 of the national bestseller Being Digital, "Hard Fun," Negroponte describes his vision of computer-assisted education by quoting an 8-year-old's summing up of the process as "hard fun." Negroponte believes that children "can playfully explore very sophisticated principles" with computer simulation techniques. "While a significant part of learning certainly comes from teaching--but good teaching and by good teachers--" Negroponte writes, "a major measure comes from exploration, from reinventing the wheel and finding out for oneself." He does not envision that computers are best employed for "drill-and-practice" routines, but rather for "learning by doing" exploratory lessons. (ST)
Douglas S. Robertson is an adjunct professor in the Department of Geological Sciences, a fellow of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, and a member of the Colorado Center for Chaos and complexity, all based at the University of Colorado. He introduces this book with the grand statement, "History has never seen a revolution on the scale of the one that is being triggered by computer technology. The closest historical parallels, the revolutions of the Renaissance, occurred on a far smaller scale than the ones being touched off today by computer technology. And just as the Renaissance marked the beginning of modern civilization, this new revolution will mark the beginning of the next level of cilivization." (Introduction, p. 7) Chapter 5 of this book looks at "The Computer Revolution in Education," which Robertson believes "may be the most important of the many practical revolutions sparked by computer technology." The greatest challenge of the age, in Robertson's estimation, is to develop the full capacity of as many individuals as possible. Toward this end, instead of focusing on how much students learn, we should focus on how much they want to learn. For Robertson, this means that "education should come to be dominated by the very function that children naturally use to educate themselves: play"--which represents a challenge to Neil Postman's critique of "edutainment." Robertson suggests that computer technology can increase the productivity of instructors by taking over most of the work of training students in basic skills. This is best accomplished by the instructional computer game. Not only will students enjoy playing these games, but sophisticated instructional software is potentially also better suited "to analyze and monitor a student's ability and progress far better than can be done by conventional examinations." By putting more resources into developing effective instructional software, "the instructor's role would become similar to that of a trainer or coach, rather than the present somewhat unpleasant roles of overseer, taskmaster, judge, and jury," Robertson concludes. (ST)
Don Tapscott is the author of the bestseller The Digital Economy: Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, chairman of the Alliance for Converging Technologies, and president of New Paradigm Learning Corporation. Chapter 7 of this book focuses on "N-Gen Learning," and in it Don Tapscott paints an optimistic picture of the benefits of new digital tools, which offer "a new model of learning--one based on discovery and participation." The new tools will cause "a rethinking of the nature of education--in both content and delivery." Tapscott criticizes current modes of teaching, in which the teacher is primarily a "transmitter" of knowledge. In this chapter, Tapscott states six "truisms" about the current state of education, and critiques what he believes are unwarranted conclusions used to discredit the use of digital media in education. These truisms are:
Tapscott argues that "the new media enable--and the N-Gen needs for learning demand--a shift from broadcast learning to what I call Interactive Learning." Although I believe that new technologies can provide interesting and effective "interactive" learning, I think it's dangerous to dismiss all teacher-driven learning as "broadcast." It may be true that most teachers are ineffective, and simply view students' role as absorbing the information that teachers transmit. In my estimation, we need to encourage true interactive learning, with teachers, with other students, and with digital tools. I don't think it is helpful to pit teachers against technologically advanced educational resources. Of all the utopian views we examined, it was Tapscott's I found the most annoying. Many of his statements were too generalized and sweeping, and tending not to take into consideration the many problems that plague our schools today. For example, he implies that the rise in the number of home-schooled students in the United States (from 20,000 in the late 1970s to 600,000 today) is a sign that parents are bypassing ineffective teachers who are failing to adopt the new digital educational resources. What about the cutbacks in funding of public education as a whole, the fact that new graduates are choosing more lucrative careers than teaching, and that there has been a rise of Christian fundamentalists, who probably make up a significant portion of the home-schooled population today? (ST)